Out Of The Wilderness: Can Pellegrini Lead Hammers To The Promised Land Of Cup Success?

Some may dream of spires but most West Ham fans will be dreaming of a first trophy win for 40 years.

It is the round of 32 in the Carabao League Cup.  Following this there are just three more matches before booking a date at Wembley (OK, four games if you include the two-legged semi-final).  It is yet another crack at finally ending a forty year famine in the West Ham trophy cabinet.  Several generations of Hammer’s fans have never experienced the joy of cup success.

When the 4th round draw takes place in Milton Keynes later tonight, there will be somewhere between 7 and 14 Premier League balls rattling around in the bowl.  If there are only 7 it will unfortunately mean the Hammers have already  been eliminated but I don’t see that being the case.  There was only one high profile exit from the Tuesday night ties (and a most amusing one at that) and it would be nice to see a few more upsets this evening – just not at Oxford.  And let’s get this one out of the way before we have a good laugh at Tottenham.

West Ham will have to negotiate the hostile Joey Beauchamp Trail on their way to Oxfords’s Kassam Stadium.  Named after the Hammer’s courageous 1994 summer signing, in commemoration of his 58 day West Ham career, it is known to be both treacherous and unforgiving.  Reading Beauchamp’s interview on how the commute made his time at Upton Park a living nightmare was very entertaining.  Apparently, the winger would have gone to the very top of the game if only he had known how to apply for a Young Person’s Railcard. I am looking forward to the Man Versus Wild re-enactment with Bear Grylls on Discovery Channel later in the year.

Tonight will be the fourth time that West Ham have faced Oxford United in the League Cup (1986 (H), 1990 (A) and 2010(H)) with each match going to the way of the home side.  In 1986 and 1990 both teams were playing their football in the same division, while in 2010 it was Premier League against League Two.  In that most recent encounter, Avram Grant’s side only managed to win the game through a scrappy stoppage time winner from Scott Parker.  It was, however, a springboard for an unlikely cup run that included wins against Sunderland, Stoke City and Manchester United before losing out in a two-legged semi-final with Birmingham.  The Hammers have famously never won the League Cup despite a couple of final appearances – something that can’t be said about tonight’s opponents who lifted it during its Milk Cup guise in 1985/86.

As with the majority of other Premier League managers, Manuel Pellegrini will seek to dabble with squad rotation for tonight’s clash.  With things going well in the Premier League and a top six clash with Bournemouth coming up at the weekend, Pellegrini will want to put out a team capable of doing just enough to win in normal time, without the risk of further injuries to key players.  With the League Cup being the most ‘winnable’ of domestic competitions, most fans will be looking for a side that is strong enough to guarantee progression to the next round.  More than anything, we dream of cup success – as we enter the longest barren spell in the club’s senior history (if you ignore the war years).

It will be interesting to see what type of lineup the manager goes for.  Maybe starts for the likes of Roberto, Pablo Zabaleta, Fabian Balbuena, Jack Wilshere, Robert Snodgrass, Carlos Sanchez and Albian Ajeti or the involvement of promising youngsters such as Nathan Holland, Ben Johnson, and Goncarlo Cardoso.  If Holland isn’t in the squad I will eat my hat (if I had one). It will be a difficult balancing act but hopefully Pellegrini is truly prioritising this competition, both in words and in deed.

A top half Premier League side should easily have enough in their locker to see off a mid-table League One side; even away from home with a smattering of fringe squad players – provided that the attitude is right.  These types of games have traditionally been a challenge for the Hammers – facing an opponent who will have nothing to lose.  With the recent bout of optimism around the club can we now start to measure Pellegrini’s West Ham by a different yardstick – one that reflects a far greater level of professionalism? I hope so.   West Ham to win by two clear goals.

A Newport State Of Mind: The Fans Expect, Can Pellegrini Deliver?

A whole bunch of banana skins with potential have been seen heading for South Wales tonight. A strong West Ham side with the right attitude will be needed to keep them away.

West Ham enter the Carabao Cup fray this evening with a second round tie against League 2 Newport County at their Rodney Parade stadium.  Arguably, the League Cup is the most winnable competition for teams outside of the rich six, but it remains a feat that has been beyond the Hammers during its 50-odd year history.

Many supporters would happily trade a few Premier League positions for a decent cup run but owners and coaches have tended to take a different view – unless you go all the way the financial reward is not high.  Nevertheless, apart from those with a realistic shout at a top four finish (or those concurrently committed to European competition) it is difficult to understand why the competition would not be taken with utmost seriousness.

With a long history of embarrassing cup exits to lower league team under their belts, including the recent memory of an FA Cup exit to AFC Wimbledon last season, West Ham would be foolish to take tonight’s game lightly.  In truth, the team fielded at Wimbledon should have easily been good enough to win the match and so attitude and proper preparation is equally important.

The most recent meeting with Newport County was one of those cup shocks when the Welsh side beat a John Lyall West Ham team that included Trevor Brooking, Billy Bonds, Alan Devonshire and Alvin Martin, That was a 1979 FA Cup third round tie at Newport’s old Somerton Park ground which Lyall regarded as one of his worst nights of his managerial career.  The Hammers famously won the FA Cup in the following season while Newport went on to win the Welsh Cup in the same year.  Both teams made it through to the Quarter Finals of the 1980/ 81 European Cup Winner’s Cup where they were each eliminated by the eventual finalists.

Things took a turn for the worse after that for Newport and they were forced to go out of business in 1989.  The club was reformed and embarked on a nomadic existence around the lower leagues before regaining league status in 2010.  Under current manager, Mike Flynn, they have recorded some notable cup upsets including wins over Leeds, Leicester and Middlesbrough and earning a creditable draw at Wembley against Tottenham, before losing in a replay.  They are unbeaten in this season’s League 2 campaign and will go into tonight’s game with little to fear and nothing to lose.

This will be no easy ride for Manuel Pellegrini’s side.  He may well want to rest a few who might be carrying knocks or try out a number of fringe or youth players but there is no room for complacency.  Maybe it will be an opportunity for recent signings Albian Ajeti and Gonçalo Cardoso to play a part; or perhaps some of Ben Johnson, Conor Coventry and Nathan Holland will be included in the squad.  Pellegrini cannot afford to make too many changes or take anything for granted.  A committed, disciplined and professional performance is required if further embarrassment is to be avoided.

It will be a tough test.  The TV executives obviously sensed the chance of an upset by selecting the tie for live broadcast.  I can’t see there being many goals but am hoping that, in the end, West Ham’s extra class will ultimately prevail over Newport’s determination.

West Ham 2 v 1 Chelsea

A time for reflection on the EFL Cup victory over Chelsea.

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1. Pedro Obiang – All season I have been writing about the need for Pedro Obiang to be one of the first names on the West Ham team sheet. Once again he demonstrated in the Chelsea game his importance to the team. We need a defensive midfielder who can tackle, pass, and show athleticism to get around the pitch. Players like this are vital in the modern game. To me he plays like Patrick Vieira did for Arsenal. He hasn’t yet showed an ability to score goals, but that is not his function in the team. He did, however, hit a tremendous shot from distance that could have been a goal.

The season began with Nordtveit in this role, but to me he doesn’t appear to have the all-round capabilities of Obiang. Pedro has now been with us for more than a year and I don’t believe he has been given an extended run to show his capabilities. And, despite knowing that statistics can be used to prove anything you want them to, I’ll now throw in one that I believe proves his value. In the last 31 Premier League and FA Cup games where he has been involved either as a starter, or as a substitute, we have lost just once. That’s right, one defeat in 31 games, and he only played for 45 minutes in the game that we lost. There is not another player at the club with this record. I don’t believe that it is any coincidence that our recent resurgence has come about partly because Pedro Obiang has been playing.

2. Edimilson Fernandes – Here we have a young player that I believe that the club bought with an eye to the future. But we must not underestimate his experience gained in Switzerland before he joined us. He was a regular as a teenager, and played a number of key games in European competition where he demonstrated his skills. It is early days I know, but to me he has already shown his versatility by playing in different positions. He is also athletic, appears to have a good temperament, can tackle, has good distribution, and showed that he knows where the goal is. I hope he is given an extended run, because I believe we may have unearthed an absolute gem. He seems to me to be a player ideally suited to the Premier League, and once again we look a better side with him in the team.

3. Mark Noble – A lot of people were writing off our captain following his early performances this season. To an extent I can understand this. Despite his many attributes, his lack of pace can sometimes let him down. And in some ways, our game seems more pedestrian when he is playing. However, we can get away this this if there are players with pace around him such as Obiang, Fernandes and Kouyate for example. I believe that the Chelsea game was his best so far in this campaign, and he orchestrated, and helped to dominate, the middle of the pitch. He did provide both of the assists, and can still be an important player in the team. I’m not writing him off yet.

4. Michail Antonio – Once again he has showed his versatility by playing in an unfamiliar position, and although he still has plenty to learn, we have to remember he has only really been playing top flight football for a year now. With his pace and movement he ran the Chelsea defence, and in particular, John Terry, ragged. He is definitely a better player when we don’t rely on him for his defensive capabilities, and I believe he can become a really top class forward. He has already shown his goal scoring ability, especially in the air, and with more composure can perhaps learn to score more goals with his feet.

5. Cheikou Kouyate – Once again here we have a player who has not yet shown this season the same form that he demonstrated in the last one. Nevertheless our new formation, which I assume we will continue to play, at least for the time being while it seems to be working, has shown him heading back towards his best. And not many players can score a powerful headed goal from the edge of the area such as the one that gave us the important early lead in the game.

6. The crowd trouble – For the life of me I cannot understand the mentality of individuals who support any football team, that show such hatred towards opposition fans, that they need to throw coins and seats at them with the sole purpose of causing injury. Obviously there are still issues to sort out in respect of the stadium safety issues, but if you look at some of the still photographs of the faces of some of the people involved, purporting to be both West Ham and Chelsea fans, you can see just why they are there, namely to cause trouble. There is no place for them, and if we do have a season ticket waiting list of over 50,000, as Ms Brady suggests, then anyone causing trouble must be identified, banned and face criminal proceedings. There are so many cameras that focus on the crowd this must be possible. If this continues then we will face unpalatable consequences from the authorities. An urgent solution to the problem must be found.

7. The players I haven’t yet mentioned – It is unusual to be approaching the end of an article about a famous victory without mentioning Payet, Lanzini, Cresswell, Reid and Ogbonna. The first three of these are beginning to show a wonderful understanding with quick incisive passing, movement off the ball, and marvellous skill. Reid and Ogbonna have never entirely convinced me as a partnership, although I can see the individual merits of both, and perhaps the addition of Kouyate alongside them will bring out the best in both of them. And finally Randolph in goal has many admirable qualities and will continue to push Adrian, and keep him on his toes.

8. Chelsea – I fail to understand why football managers rest key players and leave them on the bench, only to bring them on when a game may already be lost (e.g. Hazard, Costa). Surely put them on from the start to try to get into a winning position, and then perhaps take them off if the poor tired things are really in such need of a rest.

9. And Finally – We are now in the last eight of a major competition. Our season appears to be on the up. If we play as we did in this game then we can be a match for most teams. Let’s hope it continues.

Matchday: Hammers versus Stanley

Sliding doors. This train terminates at Stratford.

EFL CupWe asked 100 West Ham fans to “Name a Famous Stanley”. Top misty-eyed answer was the Lord Stanley in Plaistow one of the favourite pre-match watering holes from the old Boleyn Ground days. Second was the retractable blade knife that might have been taken to a match in the 70’s and in third place was former Socceroo Skippy Stan Lazaridis. The Stanley from Accrington were in a disappointing sixth place.

League Two Accrington Stanley find themselves in the 3rd round of the League Cup for the very first time. Their second round victory over Burnley being the first time that they have ever beaten a team from the top tier. West Ham’s last defeat to a fourth tier team was a 2-1 home defeat to Aldershot in 2011. Accrington manager, John Coleman, has vowed to come to the London Stadium to attack and so we could well be in for an interesting evening. They are not even bringing a bus let alone parking it.

“It will be a good side whoever we play as they are Premier League players. We will not be going there to park the bus, we will be going there to attack and score goals and if that means we get beat 7-0 so be it.”

– John Coleman

Our approach will be interesting and there are different schools of thought on the distraction or otherwise of cup competitions. The Avram Grant team had impressive runs in both League and FA Cup but remained woeful in the League. On other occasions a good cup win has galvanised League form. A good many supporters would sacrifice several League placings for a decent cup run (especially if it leads to a day out at Wembley) provided that the spectre of relegation is avoided. It is going back a long way but a 6-0 League Cup pounding of Tranmere in 1974, when we were bottom of the table, prompted a revival in fortunes that ended with FA Cup success against Fulham. Tonight is maybe a ‘sliding doors’ moment for us.

“We have to do it. Starting from today we have three mega games, three cup finals before the next international break. This game is a good opportunity for us, it’s an interesting competition for us. It’s good to have a game tonight.”

– Slaven Bilic

Head to Head

We have never played against tonight’s opposition before and so I will use the opportunity to repeat my favourite Accrington Stanley related story. Legendary goalkeeper Willie ‘Fatty’ Foulke was in the Bradford City team when Accrington Stanley visited Bradford for an FA Cup tie in February 1907. It was discovered just before kick-off that Foulke, who stood 6ft 3in and weighed in at 22 stone, was wearing a jersey that clashed with the red shirts of Stanley. After a fruitless search of the ground for a suitably large replacement Foulke used a sheet borrowed from a neighbouring house to cover the offending top. The game ended with a Bradford victory by the only goal and with Foulke barely called into action his makeshift attire was as pristine as it had been at kickoff. Thus, the origin of the phrase “keeping a clean sheet”. What are the chances of one of these today?

Team News

None of the long term injured are ready for action yet. In the circumstances I would anticipate a reasonably strong side that would include West Ham debuts for Alvaro Arbeloa and Edimilson Fernandes. I would also like to see Ashley Fletcher and Pedro Obiang given starting positions.

My predicted starting eleven:

Arbeloa  Ogbonna  Oxford  Masuaku
Feghouli  Obiang  Fernandes  Tore
Antonio  Fletcher

Obviously, I know nothing about the likely Accrington line-up other than the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of football sees players from France, Benin and St Lucia feature in the League Two side’s squad.

Man in the Middle

Tonight’s referee is Stephen Martin from Staffordshire, a member of the Select Group 2 Refs who can usually be found blowing his whistle in Championship games. If we asked 100 West Ham fans to ‘Name a famous Steve Martin’ answering with the referee’s name would no doubt get you an “Eh-uhh”!

Can We Win The EFL Cup?

Can this be the first silverware since the 1999 Intertoto glory?

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We began the season in our new stadium with high hopes following the relative success of our final season at Upton Park. Our seventh-placed finish in the Premier League gave us qualification for the UEFA Europa League, which meant that we were in with a theoretical chance in four trophies this season. I use the word theoretical as opposed to realistic, although we have to remember that Leicester, at 5000-1, were only considered to have a notional chance of winning the Premier League, and we all know what happened.

We were eliminated from the Europa League earlier than we would have hoped, or expected, and even the world’s biggest West Ham optimist would have to concede, that with just five Premier League games completed, we will not overhaul a Manchester City team who already have a 12 point lead over us in the league competition, as we sit in the relegation zone.

Our two realistic chances of a trophy before the season began, and now our only two opportunities, come in the domestic cup competitions. And when you analyse the competitions in detail, you realise how relatively easy they should be to win. But bearing in mind that our last FA Cup win was in 1980, and the fact that we have never won the League Cup, you realise that we haven’t done as well perhaps as we should have done.

This is my 59th season of watching the club, and our 50th in the top flight. We should perhaps have won more competitions than we have. But this is another season, so perhaps this will be the one. The FA Cup can be won by winning just six games of football. But the EFL Cup requires even less! The seven English teams who qualified for European competition this season, including ourselves, received byes into the third round of the League Cup, which in the absence of a sponsor is now called the EFL Cup. Those of you who have been around as long as I have will remember some of the sponsors of this competition, such as the Milk Marketing Board, Littlewoods, Rumbelows, Coca-Cola, Worthington, Carling, and Capital One.

This effectively means that you can win this trophy by winning just five games of football. You could have a magnificent defence that keeps clean sheets and get through on penalties without actually winning any games at all, but that is one winning route I can’t see us taking! So, just win five games of football. Easy isn’t it! Surely we can manage that. To be handed a draw at home to Accrington Stanley of League Two should, in theory, be a straightforward passage into the last 16, but I have supported the club for long enough to know that this is not the case!

I can remember so many banana skins in this competition with defeats to Darlington, Rotherham, Huddersfield, Coventry (more than once), Forest (at least four times!), Stockport (twice), Fulham, QPR, Swindon, Barnsley, Luton, Oldham, Oxford, Norwich, Crewe, Bolton (three times), Northampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Reading, Chesterfield, Birmingham, Aldershot, Wigan, and Sheffield United. The list is very long, and to coin a phrase popular with our manager at the moment, embarrassing!

Of course, although we have never won the competition we have come close, losing a two-legged final to West Brom in 1966 (this was the very last final decided over two legs), and to Liverpool in 1981 after a replay. We have also lost in two-legged semi-finals too, to Leicester in 1964, West Brom in 1967, Stoke in 1972 (4 epic games), Luton in 1989, Oldham in 1990, Birmingham in 2011, and the 9-0 drubbing by Manchester City in 2014.

Traditionally, throughout history, cup semi-finals have often been very tight affairs. But if you believe that our recent defensive performances are just a current phenomenon, you may like to know that in those seven two-legged semi-finals spread over fifty years we conceded 41 goals in 16 ties (6, 6, 5, 5, 6, 4, 9)!

When we beat Accrington Stanley (OK I’ll say if), then we will be in the round of 16. As we begin round three there are 16 Premier League teams left in the competition, with four all top-flight ties, meaning that at least that many will be going out. We are currently the seventh or eighth favourites to land the trophy (you can get odds of between 14/1 and 20/1), so the bookmakers fancy our chances more than some teams higher than us in the Premier League. I guess our home draw to a league 2 side in this round has something to do with that.

So can we win the EFL Cup? History tells you “no”. Our opening games this season tell you “no”. I just hope we take it seriously. We can win this trophy by winning just five games of football. Four wins guarantees a day out at Wembley, and a win there ensures European football next season. Let’s be honest, this is the simplest route into Europe.