What were you doing last Saturday? Shopping? Bit of DIY? Or looking at the FA Cup fifth round schedule, noticing West Ham’s absence, and grinding your teeth in frustration? Early FA Cup exits are always depressing (squashing new year optimism], invariably embarrassing (as they’re often against lower league sides) and annoying because they ensure football-free weekends in the coming months.
West Ham’s early bail at Nottingham Forest certainly ticked all three boxes, particularly the second, as it was a) against a Championship side b) televised and c) an absolute humiliation. Sam Allardyce’s comments ahead of the City Ground catastrophe made it clear that even if he was not quite as blunt, he was certainly a kindred spirit of Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert in regarding the Cup as something he could do without, as his hugely inexperienced team selection proved.
With suspension and injury ravaging the first team, and vital league games ahead, he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t – and after the team were slaughtered 5-0, so was he. But in hindsight, was this a good thing? One month later, sitting in 11th and looking down on the opposition with a bit more optimism, West Ham are a different club.
The looks on players’ faces after the last game of 2013, a 3-3 draw with West Brom where West Ham led twice, told their own story: ‘we gave it all we’ve got – and it wasn’t enough’. But if they thought 2013 ended badly, that was nothing compared to the new year, as in a week they lost at Fulham in the league and were ripped to shreds in both Cups by Forest and Manchester City.
For many fans, the sting of that double humiliation will take ages to heal, but for once the phrase ‘free to concentrate on the league’ has been borne out. Of course injuries clearing up have helped, but without Wembley on their minds, the team have focused on the league – and look what’s happened. The Capital One Cup exit was different – City’s squad are so good that their mascots and ballboys could probably beat most teams, so there was no shame in that loss, just its size.
And whilst it would be great to see the team lift a cup, that is the considerably less valuable one, with the ‘reward’ of the Europa League entry often proving a whole lot of pain for not much gain. I love cup football – the life-changing experience that was my first ever game was an FA Cup final, and I really fancied our Capital One Cup chances this season.
But much as I dream of seeing claret and blue ribbons on a trophy other than a play-off one (which needs relegation first), with Stratford coming, remaining a top flight club must be the priority, and a couple of Saturdays off are a small price to pay for making that more secure. Besides, there’s always next year – and this time I really think our name could be on it.