Something For The FA Cup Weekend, Sir?

Put on your scarf and bobble hat, pick up your rattle and break out the fresh roasted peanuts as FA Cup fourth round fever takes over the extended footballing weekend.

With the Premier League becoming a cash rich over hyped marketing experience – a TV show where you are encouraged to dig deep into your pockets to be part of the live studio (stadium) audience – the FA Cup has manfully attempted to hold on to tradition, even if it is no longer holds the pre-eminent role in the season that it once boasted.

Despite the best efforts of the media companies to monetise the tournament by stretching games over the entirety of an extended weekend, the competition still conjures up the nostalgia of a much less cynical and money-driven game – jumpers for goalposts, three and in, rush goalie and next goal’s the winner!   The magic of the FA Cup may well be that it has managed to keep hold of its weekend scheduling, rather than being relegated to a midweek sideshow as cup competitions often are in other countries.  The Cup may be deep in the shadow of the Premier League as far as the clubs and authorities are concerned but it continues to have a special place in the hearts of many match-day supporters.  There is nothing better than a day out at Wembley – unless it is a Tottenham home game!

Today, West Ham make their second trip of the season to the Kingsmeadow Stadium to face AFC Wimbledon.  Having eventually managed to see off the Dons challenge in the League Cup they must now do so again to book a place in the 5th round Challenge Cup draw.

Wimbledon have seen a change of manager since the previous encounter and despite the appointment of one-time West Ham coach, Wally Downes, they remain firmly rooted to the bottom of League 1.  Even for a club as incompetent in the art of banana skin management as West Ham, this should be an easy ride.   All that is then required are a set of further benign draws supported by wins today for Burnley, Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday.  Then we can start dusting off the claret ribbons for a mad day out in May.

Manuel Pellegrini has been making all the right noises about treating the cup seriously, but with a tough league game at Wolverhampton a few days later he could be tempted to resting a few key players – or at least keep them in reserve on the bench.  Even though our backup players are rarely up to the task in the Premier League they should easily have enough quality to see off today’s opponents.

Surely we will see Adrian back in between the goalposts and can also expect starts for the likes of the fit again Ryan Fredericks, Arthur Masuaku, Javier Hernandez and Grady Diangana.  I am also waiting patiently for a first first-team opportunity for Nathan Holland.

wimwhu3

Match-day referee is Anthony Taylor from Cheshire, who was previously in charge this season of the defeat at Liverpool and the home win over Palace.  The presence of a big name referee being down to the presence of the BT Sports cameras – the game having been selected for its potential banana skin properties.  Despite the TV exposure, the match is not one of the six ties selected for trial by VAR.

This is a nailed on West Ham win today – and by a comfortable margin.  Admittedly, I have not seen the many embarrassing cup exits at the hands of lowly opposition coming in the past but you just have to believe it won’t happen again.  Just need to stock up on enough supplies to last through the gruelling weekend schedule and a West Ham win.  May even call in at the barbershop on the way home.

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?

Triskaidekaphobia for Bournemouth or West Ham?

Who will come out on top in the thirteenth meeting between West Ham and Bournemouth?

Today we meet Bournemouth for the thirteenth time in history. The record to date reads 5 wins for the Hammers, 4 draws, and 3 defeats. So who can look forward to lucky 13? If we look at Premier League meetings alone then our record is not so good. We have won 2, drawn 2 and lost 3, with all the games taking place in the last four seasons (including this one).

Our paths first crossed in 1929 in round 5 of the FA Cup. We were drawn away and drew the game 1-1, returning to Upton Park four days later to record a comfortable 3-1 win to progress to the Quarter Final, where we went out of the competition to Portsmouth.

Sixty years elapsed before we met again in the second tier of English Football in 1989. Once again we drew the away game 1-1, and comfortably won the return fixture at home by 4-1. We didn’t meet them the following season, not because we were promoted, but because the Cherries dropped into the third tier at the end of that campaign. A further ten years went by before we met them in a League Cup tie at Upton Park, where we won the round 3 fixture 2-0.

Bournemouth became one of the smallest (if not the smallest) clubs to reach the Premier League when they were promoted at the end of the 2014-15 season. They recorded their first ever victory in the top flight when they won 4-3 at Upton Park in August 2015, but we did win the reverse fixture on their ground the following January 3-1.

Another first came in the following season, our first at the London Stadium, where a late header enabled us to win our first league game at our new ground. But we were beaten in the return game away from home 3-2, despite taking an early lead after Bournemouth had missed a penalty.

There were even more goals the next time we met on Boxing Day in 2017. We were leading 3-2, after trailing 2-1 with ten minutes to go, when deep into injury time Bournemouth put the ball into our net. Not only did the linesman put his flag up for offside, but the ball was handled into the goal. Referee Bobby Madley chose to allow the goal to stand, which was one of the most astonishing decisions made by a referee, and a reason why VAR can’t come too soon for me. The return game less than a month later was a 1-1 draw, where once again we came from behind.

And finally, another first at the beginning of this season, the first home game under our new manager, which resulted in a 2-1 defeat after we had led in the first half.

Five interesting facts from West Ham v Bournemouth fixtures:

  1. West Ham have never failed to score in any of the 12 games against Bournemouth in history.
  1. Four West Ham players whose surnames begin with A have scored against Bournemouth (Arnautavic, Antonio, Ayew, and Allen (Martin)). We therefore hope that Arnie, Antonio and Anderson are on the pitch today! Arnie has scored 3 times for us against them, and Antonio twice.
  1. Conversely both Josh King and Callum Wilson have scored hat-tricks against us, and both could line up against us today, although Wilson faces a late fitness test.
  1. Seven different West Ham managers have been in charge in our 12 games against them: Syd King, Lou Macari, Billy Bonds, Harry Redknapp, Slaven Bilic, David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini. King, Bonds, and Redknapp had a 100% record, Macari and Moyes never lost a game, Bilic won two and lost two, and only our current boss has a negative record in this fixture, which can be rectified with victory today.
  1. Our seven Premier League meeting average four goals a game, with 28 scored in total, 14 each.

Five other points to note:

  1. Since the beginning of last season, Bournemouth have conceded more goals in the Premier League than any other team. We come second!
  1. Bournemouth are the most out of form team in the Premier League, losing 11 of their last 14 games (league and cup), picking up only 7 points in the last 12 league games.
  1. We have collected 19 points since the beginning of December (the third most in the Premier League in that period).
  1. 17 of our last 20 goals have come in the second half of games.
  1. The majority of our Premier League goals against Bournemouth have come in the second half of games.

Taking into account past history of our meetings, and the recent record of both clubs, you can come to your own conclusion as to what will happen today. One thing is definite. It will not be a 0-0 draw! (or will it?).

My prediction is that the four goals per game average will be maintained, and we will end up winners by 3-1, with goals from the three A’s Arnautavic, Antonio, and Anderson.

West Ham Seek Payback From Seaside Rendezvous With Bournemouth

A feel-good factor on the field and turmoil behind the scenes is just one more episode in the everyday tale of footballing folk that is the West Ham soap opera.

By chance I happened to watch a Premier League chat show on Fox Sports Asia in the week.  Ordinarily, the participants rarely stray from discussing the merits or otherwise of the big six clubs, but on this particular occasion there was a brief interlude on West Ham – featuring the reincarnation of Samir Nasri and the possible transfer of Marko Arnautovic to Shanghai.  During their chat, the show’s host commented that the goings on at the London Stadium often resemble a soap opera.  The reason I mention this is that, as fans, we are so eager to consume club news that it is easy to take events out of proportion.  Many of us will have come to the conclusion years ago that the Hammers  attract more than their fair share of turmoil and absurdity– a cross between pantomime and a soap opera – Cinderella meets Eastenders!  It was just interesting that outsiders also see it in the same way.

This weekend sees West Ham off to the seaside to face AFC Bournemouth and for the second week running they have the opportunity to get payback against a team involved in the early season losing streak.   The Cherries have fallen away somewhat in recent weeks having won just twice from the last twelve league games and now sit four points behind West Ham in 12th place.  They may be disappointed with this but are still well clear of the relegation worries that many predict for them at the start of each season.

Eddie Howe continues to work wonders at Dean Court.  Although it is a small field, he continues to be the brightest English manager in the top level – and one who doesn’t rely solely on bus parking, aerial bombardment and attrition to get results.  His is the type of  energetic and enterprising side that so frequently unsettle our boys.  That there are so few decent home-grown managers and/ or coaches continues to be a surprising reflection of our game; years of exposure to more enlightened overseas coaching methods has done nothing to inspire a new generation of former players to follow this path – easier to become a pundit I suppose!

West Ham’s preparation has once again been overshadowed by the Arnautovic saga.  As I write this he is still around and on that basis I expect him to start tomorrow.  In fact, I expect an unchanged team from the one that kicked-off against Arsenal.

whuars1

If all of the media speculation is to be believed there will be a winter clearance sale at the London Stadium with rumours of Pedro Obiang, Javier Hernandez and Lucas Perez all following Arnautovic out of the exit door.  Equally frenetic is the list of names slated to replace them – all of whom sound very exotic and have splendid Youtube compilations to support their causes.  It would still be a surprise to me if there is more than one in and one out.  And maybe all the Arnie bluster will turn out to be a negotiating ruse for a better contract.

One name mentioned as a possible Arnie replacement is Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson, who has a fine scoring record against the Hammers.  Wilson has been absent through injury just recently but may be available to return for this game.  Definitely out for the Cherries are Francis, Cook and recent signing Solanke.  Having previously wasted big money on another Liverpool reject, Jordon Ibe, the signing of the injured, non-proven Solanke for £19 million looks like a major gamble to me.

Referee this week is Simon Hooper from Wiltshire.  Hooper is a rare visitor to the Premier League and, whereas, this is his first engagement with the Hammers he has already taken charge of two Bournemouth games this season.

Provided that the Hammers can keep the off-field shenanigans away from the pitch and aren’t caught napping by the host’s fast start, I will predict another three points this weekend courtesy of a fine 3-1 win.  This match always has goals in it so cannot see any clean sheets.  Our friend Lawro is going for a 2-1 Bournemouth win while Merson says 1-1.

“China In Your Hand”

Does Arnie fancy it? Or is his brother stirring it?

“Don’t push too far
Your Dreams are china in your hand
Don’t wish too hard
Because they may come true
And you can’t help them
You don’t know what you might
Have set upon yourself
China in your hand
Come from greed
Never born of the seed

 Took life from a barren hand
On eyes wide
Like a child in the form of a man
A story told
A mind of his own
An omen for our time
We take a flight on the wings of fantasy
Then you push too far
And make your dreams reality
Yeah! china in your hand
But they’re only dreams

And you shouldn’t push too far”

An excerpt from the lyrics of China in Your Hand, a number one from T’pau in 1987

arnieIf we had a full squad of players to choose from with no injuries (yes, that’s a mighty big if for West Ham), then I’d really fancy our chances against Arsenal today. Whilst still being one of the elite six teams in the Premier League, they are no longer the force of recent times, and they trail Liverpool and Manchester City by some distance.

It was only just over two years ago when they came here and handed out a 5-1 thrashing, one of two 5-1 victories over us in the last 23 meetings. In that time we’ve won just once, at the Emirates on the opening day of the 2015-16 season, a famous 2-0 win where Reece Oxford had Ozil in his back pocket. And where is Oxford today? A player we had high hopes for is still with us, but only just, and looks destined to leave in the near future, having barely played since that promising start.

Our last home win against the Gunners was on Guy Fawkes Day in 2006, and was in fact the only time we’ve beaten them on our own ground this century (until today I hope). On that day a late Marlon Harewood goal preceded a spat on the touchline between respective managers Pardew and Wenger. Wenger took exception to Pardew’s goal celebration and the handbags came out.

Today’s opponents are fifth in the Premier League at the moment, three points behind Chelsea, and three ahead of Manchester United. Whatever the outcome of this round of matches, then barring extreme scores they will remain fifth. A win for us today could lift us up as high as eighth if other results go our way, and will keep us in touch in the race for the unofficial Premier League Division Two title. The way I see the Premier League is that the elite top six form Division One, and the bottom six make up Division Three (i.e. those teams in the relegation dogfight). The middle eight form Division Two, and to finish at the top of this group would be a successful season for the team concerned.

This week it has been confirmed that Fabian Balbuena is likely to miss at least two months, and possibly most of the rest of the season. This will be a big loss, as despite Issa Diop getting most of the headlines in this season’s new central defensive partnership, I feel he has benefitted from the steady but unspectacular performances and positioning of his injured partner. Whilst being an OK replacement, Ogbonna seems to exhibit loss of concentration at times, and I believe Diop suffers as a result as he needs to cover for his new Italian partner, as well as looking after his own defensive responsibilities..

Of course the big headlines concerning our club in the last day or so involve our maverick Austrian striker whose brother (and agent) has been on the radio claiming that Arnie wants to join Shanghai SIPG in China. Apparently the initial offer of £35 million is contradictingly described as “fantastic” by the agent, and “derisory” by West Ham, who have issued a statement saying that they will not be won over by player power. Mmmmm. If selected to play, and it seems likely that he will be, then it will be interesting to see how Arnie performs today.

For me, much as I admire his ability, if he wants to go then I can’t see us stopping him, especially if a bigger offer comes on the table. No player is bigger than the club although I would hate to see him go at this point. If the offer was from a team playing in the Champions League, and he wanted to test himself at that level, then I could understand it more, but China? How much money does he need?

It would be difficult to replace a player of that calibre, especially in the short timeframe of this transfer window, but it was interesting to note that Bournemouth have signed Dominic Solanke from Liverpool for £19 million. Surely he hasn’t been bought to sit on the bench? But with King and Wilson occupying the front positions for the Cherries, I would expect that one of them is moving on, and I wonder if Bournemouth are looking to cash in on Callum Wilson. He has been linked with Chelsea, and is likely to cost approaching £50 million. I wonder if we are in a position to hijack that deal, or if he would want to come to the London Stadium?

Bookmakers are offering around even money on an Arsenal win, and about 5/2 on a home victory, the draw being in the region of 13/5. Perhaps the best bet of the day might be on the score remaining goalless at half time (21/10). West Ham haven’t scored a first half goal in a Premier League game at the London Stadium since the beginning of November, whereas Arsenal have scored 32 of their 46 league goals in the second half of games.

Although we have conceded 32 goals in the league so far this season, Arsenal do not have the defensive capabilities of their teams in years gone by, and, despite sitting fifth in the table, have only conceded one fewer than ourselves. Both teams have picked up seven points from their last five games, and a scoring draw with second half goals could be on the cards. However I reckon a determined Arnie will put on a show and score a late winning goal in a 3-2 victory. At 125/1 that will be my fun bet this week.

I Might Not Be Back Says Arnie While West Ham Prepare To Outshoot The Gunners

Uncertainty over the future of the clubs only decent striker may overshadow the meeting of two of the Premier League’s leakiest defences at the London Stadium.

With a comfortable league position and a favourable route offered through to the 5th round of the FA Cup, everything was starting to take on a rosy complexion in the wonderful world of West Ham.  But then just as we are making ourselves comfy in this state of abnormal well-being we are hit with a double whammy: first it is announced that Fabian Balbuena has become the latest in a long list of players to discover the West Ham treatment room has no exit – you can check-out but you can never leave; and then Marko Arnautovic comes down with an unprecedented case of yellow fever.

There is no doubt that the loss of Arnautovic in the wake of a huge bid from a Chinese Premier League club, would be a major blow to Manuel Pellegrini’s plans.  Although he may not be the most prolific of goalscorers, his power, pace and mobility provides an important, almost exclusive, focus to the Hammer’s attack.  There is no-one else in the squad comparable and options from elsewhere in the January transfer window will be both limited and expensive.  I can understand that players might love to win trophies but going to China to do so is a desperate move – the equivalent of Rodney winning the Under 15 art competition in Only Fools And Horses!  If his intention to leave is genuine (rather than merely a negotiating tactic) it is unlikely to end well for a club hoping to get the best out of him.  It is a sad fact of modern football that keeping a player against their will is rarely successful.

This weekend, West Ham face Arsenal in the Premier League Saturday lunchtime kick-off at the London Stadium.  When the two clubs met back in August both were pointless and the Gunners rather fortunate and flattering 3-1 win, after being a goal down, saw them embark on a long undefeated run of games.  Since that run was brought to ignominious end at Southampton they have looked somewhat indifferent as they slip further behind in the race for lucrative Champion’s League qualification.  Arsenal may well run around a lot more under new manager Unai Emery but the sacrifice has been a loss of flair and the introduction of comedy defending.  If you had asked me a few days ago about the outcome of the game I would have said West Ham were firm favourites to record their first home victory over the Gunners since November 2006.  Now I am not so sure.

With Balbuena possibly playing little part in the remainder of the season there is a bare bones look to the central defence.  Whereas the Balbuena-Diop axis was solid, the Ogbonna-Diop one is erratic and prone to a collective loss of concentration.  With few viable alternatives, the only defensive conundrum is the ongoing battle between Aaron Cresswell and Arthur Masuaku for the left back berth, where I believe Cresswell will get the nod.

whuars1

Following an encouraging debut in the FA Cup, I expect Samir Nasri to get thrown into to a first league start alongside Declan Rice and Mark Noble in midfield while further forward Felipe Anderson and Michail Antonio would hopefully support Arnautovic, if he is considered in the right frame of mind to play.  This would leave no room for Robert Snodgrass and Grady Diangana but both would likely feature from the bench.  Central midfield continues to be a worry and links to Jonjo Shelvey and Gary Medel do nothing to ease those concerns.  Experience prompts an adverse Pavlovian repsonse in me when any player who is currently playing in Turkey is linked to the club; and a 31 year old ex-Cardiff City player is hardly an exciting, forward looking prospect.

Arsenal have been running West Ham close in the most injuries achieved competition but may be able to welcome back Bellerin, Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal and Ozil this weekend – although Mkhitaryan, Holding and West Ham nemesis Welbeck remain sidelined.  Although Arsenal no longer have the traditional Wenger swagger in midfield (and what is the point of Iwobi?) the combined threat of Aubameyang and Lacazette can be as good as any in the league on their day.

Making his first refereeing appearance at a West Ham match this season is Jonathan Moss from West Yorkshire.  Moss loves to flourish the cards and will be looking to add to his total of sixty seven yellows and four reds in what is often a fiercely contested London derby.

With two of the leakiest defences in the top half of the Premier League, this game is sure to have goals in it.  BBC pundit Lawro is predicting 1-2 while at time of writing former Gunner Merson is still wrestling with his conscious before declaring for an Arsenal success.  For me, a lot hinges on the Arnautovic situation – whether he is picked to play and, if he is, what his level of commitment will be.  Arnie in churlish mood will see him limping around the pitch in a sulk looking to be the first name in the referee’s notebook.  Nevertheless I am mysteriously in confident mood and can sense a Nasri inspired 3-2 Hammer’s bonanza.

Pellegrini Steers A Course Towards Cup Success

Jasper Carrott, Ozzy Osbourne, Simon Bates, Peaky Blinders, Bob Carolgees and Spit, Richard Hammond, Kiroy-Silk, Crossroads Motel, Mr Blue Sky, UB40. Your boys gonna take a hell of a beating!

It has become common over recent seasons to hear the term game management to describe the dull final twenty minutes or so of a match where the team in command ceases to press home the advantage while their opponents lack the ability to do anything about it.   When it comes to the third round of the FA Cup, which sits at the end of a packed holiday schedule, it has become a case of witnessing season management – managers looking to select a team with just enough quality to get through without the risk of further injury or fatigue.

In years gone by, the third round of the FA Cup was one of the most eagerly anticipated dates in the football calendar; but it is now firmly in the shadow of Premier League money-go-round and the quest for final standing merit payments.  The cup now only really comes into its own, as far as managers and the media are concerned, in the later rounds with the final managing to retain a good part of its allure.

At the old Wembley stadium, there were famously 39 steps from the pitch up to the royal box where both Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds climbed to receive the challenge cup trophy.  This season marks the 39th anniversary of the last of those memorable victories.  Is it be a step too far to imagine Mark Noble raising the cup aloft with a claret ribbon when May comes around?  Can Manuel Pellegrini manage his depleted resources and navigate a course all the way to the Wembley Arch?

The majority of supporters love a good cup run although the definition of what would constitute good is uncertain.  While going all the way is fantastic, elimination before the sixth round doesn’t really carry much of a distinction or merit even a footnote in history – personally, I even have mixed feelings about the 2006 final; a great day out at the time but I have never been able to relive the experience by watching the highlights ever again!

Even under Avram Grant (the second worst West Ham manager ever) there were two barnstorming cup runs – reaching the sixth round of the FA Cup before losing to Stoke City and going one step further in the League where the Hammers lost in a two leg semi final – to Birmingham City!  It is perhaps easy to look back with the knowledge of hindsight and say that the experience of the cup runs trumped eventual relegation but that could easily have turned out a lot worse for the club.  In financial terms winning the cup is only worth a league place or two but the memories for supporters last a lifetime.  It is a difficult balance for managers to handle.  At least the manager has the cushion of a comfortable league position as his backstop.

Pellegrini says that the cup is important to him and it certainly represents a more realistic route to winning a trophy than league success.  But winning the cup has still been dominated by the big six during the Premier League era and, more than ever, requires good fortune and a lucky draw – providing both an easy path forward for us and allowing the bigger teams to eliminate each other on the way.

Pellegrini will be wanting to give a break to key players this afternoon, particularly those that have played almost every minute; such as Felipe Anderson, Declan Rice and Issa Diop – although it may not be possible in every case.  Who, for instance, is available to cover for Diop?  New recruit Samir Nasri will play some part but probably no more than a half.  With such a long injury list there is not too much on the fringes of the squad to get very excited about and it may well mean another outing for the odd striking couple of Andy Carroll and Lucas Perez.  Apart from Gray Diangana and Xand Silva there has been little indication that the manager is seriously considering others from the  academy as first team players right now.  Conor Coventry and hopefully Nathan Holland will make it onto the bench alongside Anderson and Marko Arnautovic who are likely to be held in reserve.

whubir3

The Two Daves will be keen to welcome their former club to the London Stadium, like a man trying to impress on his ex-wife how well he has been doing since the divorce.  It is strange not to have a club from England’s second city in the Premier League and with Birmingham (as well as Villa) just off the pace in the Championship, perhaps their minds and priorities will also be somewhere other than the FA Cup.

Manager Gary Monk who had a bright start to his managerial career at Swansea City, but subsequently struggled at Leeds and Middlesbrough, appears to be finally getting some consistency at St Andrew’s.  From what I have seen and read about Che Adams, he is just the type of player to give the Hammers the runaround and will need to get kept on a tight rein.

I was never one to attend many away games outside of the capital but, courtesy of a friend giving me some Persil tickets, I did travel to Birmingham to see the fifth round tie in 1984.  It was quite possibly the most miserable footballing experience of my life where the fighting started in the bar at Euston and remained a real and constant threat throughout the day.  A tepid West Ham performance and a 3-0 defeat did nothing to improve matters for the long depressing ride home.

The referee today is Roger East from Wiltshire who was last at the London Stadium for the win against Burnley.

As much as I would love to see West Ham sweep aside their lower league opposition, game management and season management will not allow that to happen.  This will be no Macclesfield (or Tranmere!).  It is even too tight even to be viewed as an upset – a banana skin without much potential, in fact. Keeping the faith, however, I will rely on the Hammers putting in a spirited performance and securing a single goal victory.