IT obviously won’t happen, but wouldn’t it be nice if Big Sham actually fielded his best available XI for both the Nottingham Forest and Man City cup games and vowed to have a real go at taking West Ham as far as possible in the League Cup and FA Cup – as all clubs set out to do back in the day.
Fans will be paying lots of hard earned money to travel to both Forest and The Etihad in the next week, not to mention the cost of watching the home leg of the City tie, but for what? To see an understrength side put out by a manager who couldn’t care less about the cup competitions. OK, so City are a mortgage job to do us over two legs, but at least let’s go down having a go and fighting. Let’s at least give chance a chance, no matter how slim our prospects seem to be.
After all, who are Nottingham Forest? An average team who often struggle to score goals, chasing a place in the Championship play-offs. Even with our current injury crisis, we should still have enough to beat them – if not at the City Ground, then via a replay.
The credibility of both domestic cup competitions has sadly been lacking for a number of years, a sad state of affairs exacerbated by the FA actually allowing – no, actively encouraging – Manchester United to opt out of the FA Cup completely one year so that they could play in the World Club Cup on the other side of the world instead. If the game’s governing body doesn’t take the world’s oldest and once greatest competition too seriously, then it is any surprise that very few Premier League clubs do either?
Of course, we all know that money is at the root of this problem, as it is with many of the game’s ills.
But why wouldn’t a club like, say, Newcastle United – who have won nothing since 1969 – not go all out to win the cups? They are not going to challenge for the Champions League places this season and neither are they in danger of being relegated, so wouldn’t it be nice to give their fans a trophy to cheer? Yet they have played a weakened team again, lost at home to Cardiff today and have now gone out at the third round stage in two consecutive seasons.
To be fair to Pardew, he was the last Hammers manager to take us close to emulating what John Lyall achieved 33 years ago, but let’s not punish ourselves any more by reflecting upon how the 2006 Cup Final panned out in the closing stages.
Of course, managers of teams tangled up in a relegation battle will try and justify putting out fringe and inexperienced young players by saying ’it’s the league that counts’ and ‘we can’t afford any more injuries to first team regulars’. As it happens, this year, our ongoing injury problems will largely dictate the teams BS puts out at Forest and against City, although he – along with far too many other managers – has been treating the cups with contempt for too long. Even if Carroll, Downing and other injury victims had been available, there is no way BS would have put out his first choice team in cup games this season.
And yet the fans are expected to carry on turning up, paying their hard-earned (is it £49 for a ticket to the City home leg of the semi later this month?) and put up with watching what are effectively reserve team line-ups. Unconditional love and devotion. Or, as I see it, taking the piss.
The cynic in me has also noted a disturbing trend that is another blight on the game. Rather than set out to win League Cup and FA Cup ties, Premier League clubs (and others in the lower divisions) now routinely use these games as a convenient opportunity to manipulate the disciplinary totting up process. Clock how many players commit inexplicably ridiculous fouls to deliberately bring about a suspension that will preclude them from (in their eyes) a meaningless cup tie and leave them free to play in forthcoming league matches. You can imagine the dialogue in the dressing room 15 minutes before kick-off…
Manager: “Now remember (insert player’s name), make sure you get booked before the end because we need you to be suspended for next week’s cup game so that you will be back for the league game after that…”
Player: “Ok boss, leave it to me, no problem.”
(I’m not sure what was said between Big Sham and Nolan at Anfield or Craven Cottage, but perhaps the skipper misheard the instructions….)
The FA should take a seriously close look at this widespread abuse of the system and introduce a new rule that would see player suspensions apply to league matches only.
It wasn’t always this way.
Many of us doubtless recall those memorable floodlit games in the thrilling 1971-72 League Cup run that ended famously with a 2-3 defeat by Stoke on the Old Trafford mud. It was heart-breaking to lose in such unfortunate circumstances when Bobby Ferguson got injured and Mooro had to replace him between the sticks, especially after having overcome Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield United in style in the build up to the semi-final saga. Chelsea had already reached the final and we had the Twin Towers in our sights.
At the age of 12, I was overjoyed to see Bryan Robson put Sheffield United to the sword in a 5-0 victory, Pop and Hurstie score the goals that sent Liverpool packing and Clyde Best notch a shock headed winner in an away replay at Leeds. This, at a time when Leeds and Liverpool were among the top sides in the country. There was never any suggestion that Leeds, under the ruthless Revie, would send out a lesser team against us. Look at the quality of their line-up on the night we won 1-0 at Elland Road: Harvey, Reaney, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles, Madeley, Gray.
Many of you will recall that gut-wrenching experience when Hurst’s thunderbolt penalty was somehow diverted over the bar at the North Bank end by his England team-mate Gordon Banks in the second leg of the semi-final against Stoke. Those agonising replays that followed at Hillsborough and Old Trafford should have been unnecessary.
But when we inevitably lose to Man City over two legs this month (and there will certainly be no shame in that), no-one apart from us sad, old romantics will give a toss. By the next morning, all thoughts will turn again to the desperate battle for precious league points. It’s all about money now.
There is, however, one obvious way the English football’s governing authorities of the could change clubs’ attitude towards the cups for the better… simply award Champions League places to the winners of those trophies, instead of the top four in the league. In the event of a team winning the cup double, give the CL place to the losing finalists.
*The latest issue of our retro EX magazine includes a rare, in-depth and exclusive interview with Frank Lampard, whose diving header winner against Everton in the 1980 FA Cup semi-final is etched in West Ham folklore. A year’s (UK) subscription costs as little as £12 at www.ex-hammers.com