I’m not sure I like the idea of knowing the next round’s cup opponents before the previous one has been played. It removes a layer of excitement and spontaneity from the equation. Still, it is was it is, and the Hammers have been given a fourth-round tie against Doncaster, which they are expected to win, followed by a fifth-round visit to either Manchester United or Liverpool, where history provides far less room for optimism.
Not that they should fear anyone in their current mood, particularly in a season characterised by a peculiar levelling-up (or is it a levelling-down) in the Premier League. At the halfway stage, West Ham join with Leicester, Everton and Southampton as would-be usurpers, threatening to break the traditional stranglehold of the rich six – at least for the European places, if not the title itself.
Seasons in the sun are rare at West Ham and, where they have occurred, have come in the form of sunny spells rather than prolonged periods of cloudless blue skies. A cluster of cup wins in the 60’s, the excellent side of 1980-82, the boys of 86. All good times but far too short-lived. The most recent good in parts season was 2015/16, where the emotional departure from the Boleyn was married with the match-winning genius of Dimitri Payet. Even then, it was as good as it promised and how quickly it all fell apart afterwards.
At this season’s midpoint, the Hammers have amassed their best ever return of Premier League – what might have been possible with even half of Leicester’s ten penalties? It does feel like an over-achievement, though – but the players and coaches should all give themselves a huge pat on the back, as is appropriate in these socially distanced times. But where does it go from here? It would seem impossible to maintain the same momentum through the second half of the season with such a small squad of players. Despite all the noise in the media, I’m not picking up any positive vibes about reinforcements coming in – at least the type who can make a difference. The dark clouds of boardroom incompetence may soon be casting their unwelcome shadows over us.
Back to today and it is the magic of FA Cup action at the London Stadium courtesy of a visit from Doncaster Rovers, currently among the frontrunners in League 1 under the management of Darren Moore – but having recently sold arguably their best player, midfielder Ben Whiteman, to Preston North End.
It is completely unfair on my part, but I always think of Doncaster as one of a group of anonymous teams from the lower leagues (like Rochdale, Scunthorpe, Lincoln or Rotherham) who might occasionally get the odd season in the second tier but are more at home bouncing between leagues one and two. As we know for experience, though, that is no barrier to giving the Hammers a very hard time of it in cup games.
Fans of football trivia might be interested to know of Rovers’ claim to fame as one of the teams involved in the world’s longest ever football match – a Division Three North cup replay in 1946 which lasted a grand total of 203 minutes. Coincidently, their opponents that day were Stockport County, who, of course, West Ham defeated in the previous round of this year’s cup. The Stockport-Doncaster game had been locked at 2-2 after ninety minutes, and followed by a scoreless extra time period of 30 minutes. No penalty shoot-outs back then and the match then entered a ‘next goal’s the winner’ phase. However, there was no further scoring and when the sun went down the game was called off due it being too dark to continue. Doncaster eventually won the second replay 4-0.
The only player I know of who has served both West Ham and Doncaster is Rufus Brevet. Brevet played over 100 times for Rovers at the start of his career before finding his way to East London, via QPR and Fulham. He made 28 appearances for the Hammers (scoring once) between 2003 and 2005.
David Moyes has committed to playing a strong side in the Cup and has said that he wants to win it for Mark Noble. That sounds like it means another start for Michail Antonio (in the absence of there being any other striker available) although fringe players such as Noble, Andriy Yarmolenko, Fabian Balbuena, Issa Diop, Ryan Fredericks and Ben Johnson might be in line for a start.
Lifting the cup at Wembley would be a fitting climax to Noble’s career, but I can only see it working if he comes on as a late substitute in the final. Teams start to take the cup a lot more seriously from the sixth round onwards – moving closer to their strongest elevens.
Maybe having to play Manchester United or Liverpool in the fifth round isn’t as bad as it might sound, their minds are likely to be engaged elsewhere on league titles and European competition. Strangely, they will be more concerned about not losing to each other than will about West Ham.
To set up a trip to the north-west, though, we must first see off Doncaster. I would be lying if I said I knew anything about the way they play, but if Whoscored can be relied upon, they are a passing team, good at through balls, favour attacking down the right, take their chances, are proficient at holding onto a lead and at coming back from losing positions. Weaknesses are aerial duels and conceding free-kicks in dangerous positions.
I have to believe that West Ham will win this game, but they will be hoping to achieve it without extending themselves unnecessarily – there are just so many important games on the horizon, starting with a trip to Palace on Tuesday. West Ham to score one or two headed goals and clinch that fifth round trip to the north-west. COYI!