Soucek Available as Hammers Bid to Reach FA Cup Quarter Final

If you read newspapers or social media to see what happened when we played at Craven Cottage at the weekend then you wouldn’t have found out very much about the actual football played. The conditions were awful, the rain was bucketing down and the pitch was slowly deteriorating as the game went on. It reminded me of our FA Cup tie at Stockport in many respects. We were playing a side that on form we should be dominating but in many aspects we were second best. Fulham actually play some neat football, but unfortunately they are likely to go down this season because of a lack of a cutting edge in the final third. Either team could have won the game with each of our Czech imports missing headed chances whilst at the other end all the Fulham players seemed to lose composure when a half chance appeared.

The major talking point came as a result of a West Ham free kick with seconds to go, when Lee Mason (on VAR duty at Stockley Park) drew Mike Dean’s attention to the fact that Mitrovic was on the floor, looking like he’d been felled by Mike Tyson, and suggested that he should go and view the incident on the screen at the side of the pitch. After reviewing the footage 23 times (that says enough in itself that it wasn’t clear to him!) he then produced a red card. Cue astonishment all round – it was obvious to anyone who understands the game that it was accidental. There has been about 99% agreement everywhere you view or read that the decision was a wrong one, and fortunately the red card was rescinded on Monday. The only real doubt that this would be the outcome was would the panel want to overturn a second decision by (supposedly) one of the top referees in one week? But common sense won the day (sometimes it doesn’t in football) and Soucek is available to play in tonight’s game. The sad thing is that a (top!?) referee should see an incident in a different way to virtually all other observers.

We face a Manchester United side that are having a good season, lying second in the league with a very good chance of retaining a position in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League. Of course we are sixth ourselves, only one point behind Liverpool (in fourth) and should be harbouring ambitions to achieve a top four place too. But with limited attacking options and little investment from the top of the club to remedy this we are very much outsiders in this respect and that’s why I believe tonight’s game takes on added importance. To achieve a top four league finish would require consistency of performance that may be beyond us with our current squad. Excellent though we have been in so many ways this season, our best chance of glory must realistically be to emulate what we achieved in 1964, 1975 and 1980, and that is of course to win the FA Cup.

Yes, a tough fixture tonight, but if we can come out on top then that would put us into the last eight, just one game away from the semi-final, and two wins away from a final appearance at Wembley. Sitting close to the top of the Premier League, with absolutely no chance of going down with 15 games of the season to go is a position we don’t often find ourselves in, but that is where we are. That is why we should be focussing 100% on putting out our best team and trying to win the FA Cup.

As a fan I know that I’d prefer an appearance in the FA Cup final to a sixth or seventh place finish in the Premier League, which is realistically the best we are likely to achieve. Of course our owners may feel differently and prefer the idea of finishing as high as possible in the league, with an extra £2m in prize money for each incremental position achieved. If players need to be rested at any time then I’d prefer this to be for league games whilst we still have an interest in the cup. Of course I’d like to think we could achieve a top 4 finish and a visit to Wembley for the Cup Final, but that may be too much of an optimistic dream. We definitely have a better chance of winning tonight with Soucek available now, and that one piece of news might help to drive us on to achieve a shock result. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world for the team lying sixth to overcome the team in second place, but the bookmakers have decided that it would be. The Red Devils are 8/13 to win the game, whereas we are 21/5, with the draw around 16/5.

The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

MUNWHU1The odds against us winning were even greater twenty years ago on 28 January 2001 when we went to Old Trafford to face them in Round 4 of the FA Cup, but that didn’t stop Paolo Di Canio beating the offside trap to put the ball past the raised hand of Barthez which culminated in a famous 1-0 victory.

I’m also old enough to remember an even more famous win against them in the semi-final of the cup in 1964, on our way to winning the trophy. We faced them the week before the semi-final in a league game at Upton Park. They beat us 2-0 despite resting most of their first team, including the trio of Best, Law and Charlton, whilst we had our first choice team playing. The following Saturday at Hillsborough we lined up with the same XI whereas they brought back their top guns expecting an easy victory.

That season Manchester United finished second in the league whereas we were a lowly 14th. But that didn’t stop us progressing to Wembley comfortably in that one-off game with two goals from Ronnie Boyce (seen being chased by fellow team members after scoring one of the goals in the semi-final) and another from Geoff Hurst. Boyce only scored 29 goals in 341 appearances for us but he knew about scoring important ones, as he also headed the winning goal in the final minute of the Final when we defeated Preston 3-2.

My prediction for tonight (optimistic hat on as usual) is for the game to end 1-1 after 90 minutes, 2-2 after extra time, and then for us to win 4-3 on penalties (despite our lack of penalty practice this season!). What are the chances?