How to kill the FA Cup. There’s more spare seats at the Riverside than at an estate agents’ recruitment fair. At least there’s 3000 Hammers fans present thanks to the club’s free coaches, giving it "Your support is f***ing shit!". But when it’s on live TV why not give out free tickets rather than devalue the Cup even further? Or scrap the ideas of replays altogether?
Settling down on my armchair with a bottle of Ridley’s Old Bob (top Essex brewer) my dreams soon fade and die. Zola has disrupted the successful midfield quartet of Collison, Behrami, Parker and Noble by dropping Welsh Jack for debutant Kovac. The big Czech looks like a lifeguard from Baywatch, and starts to play like one too, giving away a silly free kick on the edge of our box after five minutes. Downing, like Matt Taylor on Saturday, curls a beautiful free kick into the top corner.
Zola has dropped Di Michele too, for 12-year-old Freddie Sears, up against playground bullies Wheater and Huth. Carlton still seems to be feeling his injury and our one-touch game is horribly awry. The Smog Monsters want it more and score again after Althugh the plus side is 'l now be able to get to my mother-in-law's birthday bash on semi-final weekend. 28 minutes, Tomkins clears the ball back to the edge of the box and Tuncay fires home, aided by a slight deflection. Game over man. And ITV don’t even ease the pain by putting on a Tic-Tac ad instead of the goal.
Kovac has a shot saved, Sears shoots wide and in the second half Parker fires our best shot just wide after taking a pass from sub Di Michele. Green makes a fine save and the rest of the game is Boro playing out time on their tundra of a pitch before the banks of vacant red seats. Where is the glory, the vision and the gleam? It’s the sodding FA Cup. And we haven’t won a proper trophy for 29 years.
It’s a mystifying performance. Zola must take some of the blame for his tinkering. What the game also emphasises is how thin our squad is. We’re relying on inexperienced youngsters (Tomkins and Sears) and hopeful buys like Kovac and Tristan as soon as we get an injury or loss of form. And why no chance for the £5 million Savio? We should never have sold Christian Dailly.
As frustrated Irons fan Will Thackeray would have put it: “Ah, Vanitus Vanitatum! Which, of us has his desire in life, or having it, is satisfied?”
Although the plus side is I'll be able to make my mother-in-law's birthday on semi-final weekend. Time to concentrate on booing Craig Bellamy.
Bad feeling about Bolton away. We’ve lost 4-1, 4-0 and 1-0 at the Reebok in the previous three seasons and we also lost 1-0 up there in 2003 in a defeat that virtually condemned us to relegation, just before poor Glenn Roeder had a brain hemorrhage. Cue Fat Sam and Okacha doing horrible victory jigs at the end of the season as we headed for Rotherham.
Nicola, my daughter Nell and this absent Iron are taking advantage of spring-like sunshine to cycle through the woods at Bayfield in Herts. Having decided to try and ignore the game, a text comes from Nigel, putting a spoke in my mountain bike’s wheel. It reads: “Sounds unlucky”. For an instant there’s a temptation to think he might mean unlucky not to win in a plucky draw. But no, Matt conforms the 2-1 defeat with the proviso “we never win at Bolton”.
At least Cole and Behrami are fit to play and Spector is in for the suspended Neill. Match of the Day confirms that we should have taken something from the game.
Early on Ilunga does well to get into the box and plays in Cole for a blocked chance. But Bolton score after ten minute when Jack Collison rather naively gives away a free kick on the edge of our box. Matt Taylor scores with a trademark unstoppable shot into the top corner. A minute later Elmander crosses for Davies to reach the ball before Upson and Spector to fire home first time. Then Collins goes off with a hamstring injury.
But we come back with some great football. Starting with Tomkins' header out of defence a great move sees Di Michele find Cole and Carlton play through Noble, who bizarrely opts to cross when he looks certain to score. In the resulting melee Nobes' has a lob cleared off the line.
Before the break Nobles plays Di Michele through and in a one-on-one he slices the ball horribly wide. Even Zola looks like he might swear.
After the break Cole has a header cleared off the line before Spector’s fine low cross is steered in by Parker. All you can hear on the box are the Hammers fans’ chanting “Come on you Irons”. Jaaskelainen does well to save Carlton’s Cole's bouncing header. Then right at the end Di Michele neatly rounds the keeper only for Cahill to clear the ball off the line. Yet, even in defeat, some of our football shows how far the team has come undr Zola.
We’ll see bankers waiving bonuses and Nigel forgetting how many grounds he’s been to before we win at Bolton. Let’s now concentrate on the Cup.
At least the prices are cheap. It’s only a fiver for each of my kids, so Lola and Nell enjoy egg, chips and beans in Ken’s Café, with added salt and ketchup. Carol is very understanding about their mum’s mysterious turning down of a Valentine’s Day trip to Upton Park.
Then it’s off to the Newham Bookshop to purchase a Horrid Henry Meets the Queen and Ginger Snaps by Cathy Cassidy, as a Boro-accented miscreant bends one of Vivian’s spines. Good day out for the kids so far.
All those pictures of the Middlesbrough semi-final triumph in the programme have me fantasising about Zola’s glorious return to Wembley on May 30. The reality on the pitch is a little different.
Middlesbrough have two good chances in the first ten minutes, with Johnson and Downing shooting wide from good positions. We badly miss the injured Behrami. West Ham are second into tackles and Middlesbrough seem to want Cup glory (and that FA Cup final breakfast with Nigel) more. We come back into the game a little with Collison finding Noble, whose shot is well saved by Jones. James Collins then has a piledriver saved by Jones.
Then on 22 minutes O’Neil crosses, Collins completely misses the ball and Downing, playing in a free role, stoops to head the ball home.
Nell starts to cry. “Daddy can we go home? West Ham are going out of the Cup!” Matt and Lisa say they want to go home too (Nigel is allegedly at a dinner party in Winchester).
Nell goes through a major crisis of belief, asking, “Daddy will West Ham score a goal? They’re going to lose and my day will be ruined!”
It feels like a form of child abuse taking her to Upton Park and maybe I’ll soon have to explain my actions to social services. Even Haringay would probably take them into care.
Everything I have ever learned about parenting has come from football, but even so I have to trawl into my reserves of suitable aphorisms.
“It only takes a second to score a goal,” I say, hoping she’ll think it original wisdom. “And you appreciate winning all the more once you’ve been behind. Try to be like Fraser. He never panics.” Luckily the wine gums in my pocket seem to help her recover.
“Can I throw a peanut at Middlesbrough?” asks Nell, showing worrying potential as a junior ICF member.
"Dad, why are the people behind us being horrible to poor Luis Boa Morte?" asks Lola.
"You're going down with the Tottenham!" chant the Bobby Moore Stand.
West Ham rally too, with Di Michele juggling the ball in Di Canio-esque style before volleying wide. Nell greets every Boro free kick with chants of “Boo Middlesbrough!” which seems to work as they fluff them all.
Carlton Cole is taken off with an ankle injury. Our squad is worryingly thin. Tristan shoots hopelessly into Row Z of the Centenary Stand. Then on half-time Noble’s shot is palmed away by Jones into the path of Collison, who shoots over an open goal.
Lola has to remonstrate with Nell when she gets her Horrid Henry book out at the start of the second half.
“Nell, you can’t read that during the game,” says big sister.
“Yes, the only library is at the Emirates,” adds her dad.
Mind you West Ham have quite a few Horrid Henrys on the pitch and no Perfect Peters.
Alves shoots wide and Green saves smartly from Downing. Boa Morte who has at least got stuck in, has to go off with a facial injury.
Tristan wriggles through to shoot tamely. After a good move between Noble and the impressive Ilunga Di Michele stabs the ball over an open goal. Nell wonders why he’s being called “an anchor” by most of the crowd. Even 10-year-old Lola is moved to say “Flipping hell!” At least her distress at seeing us spoon over great chances seems genuine; maybe we’ve got her for life.
Come on West Ham this is the flipping Cup, our one chance of a trophy. The fans try to make a difference with "We are Franco's claret and blue army!" Sears can’t quite reach a goalmouth melee. We wonder why Savio wasn’t brought on earlier. He impresses in a wide left role and is prepared to run at the Boro players, admittedly from way too deep.
Then on 83 minutes Savio takes a free-kick following a Boro handball wide on the left. His nicely flighted ball evades the Boro defence and is headed home of Herita Ilunga. I find myself hugging Lola and picking up Nell telling her “I told you we’d score!”. I’m also relieved at appearing a little less of a sad loser in my children’s eyes. The winning goal won’t come, but the mood is one of relief that we’re still in.
We head to East Ham tube via the Dr Who shop where the Cybermen look more capable of bagging a goal than some of our players.
“You learned a lesson about faith today,” I tell Nell. “Sometimes you have to keep believing right to the end. And your use of ‘boo Middlesbrough’ seemed to work pretty well too.”
Our name might not be on the FA Cup. But at least we’re in the draw for the quarter-finals. And surely we have to play better in the replay?
Great to see three Hammers on the pitch in the second half of Spain v England last Wednesday night. Robert Green as custodian, Matthew Upson at the back and for the last 15 minutes Carlton Cole.
Beckham looked relieved to have found another world class player on the pitch with the arrival of Carlton, threading throgh a great ball for Cole to round the keeper and have his shot cleared off the line. Carlton we never doubted you — much.
OK, we lost but now Capello realises the full value of three Hammers on the pitch we will surely win the World Cup. Were you watching Craig Bellamy?
The omens are good. Not only has DC driven Jo, Alastair and myself to the game (great idea closing the District line on a match day, TFL) he’s got us there by the unprecedented time of 3.10pm. Carlton Cole has been called up for England. Eight words I never thought I'd write. Oh, and Jo has injured her shoulder making chocolate brownies, which surely rivals Dave Beasant injuring himself dropping salad cream on his toe and Rio Ferdinand pulling a muscle in his leg watching TV.
Inside the literary and political salon that is Ken’s Café there’s a minor melee over the Lapsang Souchong when DC leaves the door open (“Oi! Tall Boy! Shut the bleedin’ door!” exclaims Carol) before we head to the environs of the East Stand.
As the sides emerge there’s a proper rendition of Bubbles and big cheers for Carrick, Ferdinand and Tevez. There’s even a chorus of “There’s only one Carlos Tevez!” Wonder if we’ll be quite so generous if he scores.
Despite the tube closures a large contingent of Man United fans have made it from Guildford and chant “Where’s you famous Danny Dyer?”
"We support our local team!" and “Live round the corner! You only live round the corner!” reply the Bobby Moore Stand.
It’s a tight game. Tevez looks lively and Ronaldo dangerous, even if he does perform several somersaults every time Lucas Neill breathes on him. Berbatov plays a lovely through ball only for Giggs to be dispossessed by an immaculate tackle from Upson. Lucas Neill has a shot saved by Van der Saar, then Noble plays a great through ball to Carlton Cole. Encouragingly CC outpaces Rio Ferdinand, but then, in front of Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho, he tries to chip the keeper instead of shooting hard and low.
Collison has a jinking run ended in their box, only for United to counter with Green making a fantastic save from Ronaldo’s shot. Ronaldo heads wide from a corner for the Mancs. “They’re just another route one side, relying on set-pieces,” scoffs Matt.
Cole has another shot blocked by the admirable Vidic before half-time.
“Do you think United can hold on?” we ask on the East Stand forecourt.
We start off well after the break and spontaneous choruses of Bubbles waft around Upton Park. Although we could do without the bad taste Ronaldo “tunnel” song. Neill has another shot saved and then Cole brings the ball down beautifully before outmuscling Vidic and being brought down. Vidic is booked and it’s a very good sign that Cole can trouble the best centre backs.
But you can’t write off United. The likely champions suddenly punish pour only mistake. Scholes knocks the ball wide to Giggs, Cole dives in only for the Welsh winger to trick him and Parker before driving low past the unsighted Green. The Surrey tribes in the Centenary Stand go wild.
But we don’t fold. A great move between Parker and Noble sees Cole’s shot blocked at the last. Tevez shoots over for the visitors, substitute Savio fires in a great cross, Ronaldo has a penalty claim dismissed and at the death Collison shoots wide.
‘Three points dropped today, two against Arsenal, we may have to write off the title,” is my verdict. But in DC’s motor we agree that the game was encouragingly close. Both full-backs got forward really well and the newly-signed Ilunga had maybe his best game for the Hammers. Best of all, Noble had a great game and Collison looked completely at home against the likely champions. United look the best team to visit Upton Park this season, but hey, we gave them a game.
Thank God it's over. Still, we haven't done badly in the transfer window. We've retained Green, Upson and Parker and doubled our money on Bellamy. Most of the players we've loaned have been expendable such as Quashie, Bowyer and Faubert (did Real Madrid mistake him for Hayden Mullins?).
It's sad to see Etherington go, but his gambling problems had much to do with that, although quite what living in Stoke on a diet of oatcakes and long throw-ins will do for him, who knows.
Hayden Mullins is another loyal servant to go, but we did get a couple of million for him. Calum Head-on-a-Stick Davenport was rather hard done by, but it's been obvious from day one that Zola doesn't rate him. The jury is out on Savio and Kovac, but let's hope they're as good as Ilunga.
We've bought or loaned eight players this season and sold or loaned 15, so the object of trimming a bloated squad has been achieved.
And even better news is that in the latest edition of Observer Sport Monthly Rio Ferdinand says the club he'd like to play for apart from Man United is still West Ham. One for the summer, eh, Franco?
Middle class football fans, eh? Never mind Nigel’s dinner party in Isleworth. Our pre-match lunch is round at my Finsbury Park gaff, featuring pumpkin soup, Brie and walnut bread and the finest wines known to humanity.
Fraser has taken my Fonz comparison to heart and is now wearing a black tie and shirt plus a brown jacket, while Matt and Lisa wonder if Ken’s Café might expand into sales of the fine claret we’re supping.
We walk down Drayton Park and enter the Emirates Stadium. We’re shocked to discover that there’s no reference section or daily papers. The West Ham fans busy themselves with cries of “It’s quiet in the library!”, “Can’t buy an atmosphere!” and “60,000 Muppets!”
Our bench displays a worrying lack of depth, featuring Savio, Boa Morte, Tristan, Sears, Lopez and Spector. Now that Gustav Flaubert has been loaned to, gulp, Real Madrid, you worry what will happen should we suffer another injury crisis.
Arsenal (or more accurately Collins under pressure) hit the top of our bar after a couple of minutes and it looks ominous. The Gunners play the ball around nicely in midfield but in a strange game nothing really happens. We defend well, but produce little up front until just before half-time, when Collins’ header is cleared from off the line. The Irons fans content themselves with some more chants of “My name is Ludo Miklosko, I come from near Moscow!" and a rather lewd ditty about Behrami’s wife.
In the second half Adebayor’s overhead kick is cleared off the line by Collins. The same player has a free header but places the ball too close to Green. Carlton hits our first shot straight at the grey-shorted Alumnia. The mighty Collins heads another Arsenal effort wide. Collison mysteriously fails to shoot after good work by Cole and then Arsenal break down the right for Adebayor to slice wide.
Parker is superb in midfield winning every tackle and Behrami covers an incredible amount of ground too. Upson and Collins have big games too. Di Michele has been anonymous though, Cole has struggled against Gallas and Toure and Noble and Collison have not produced any of the intricate passing of Wednesday night. But we’re drawing away at the Emirates and it seems almost easy. That’s progress.
“Shall we read a book for you!” we chant at the Arsenal fans, followed by “We can see you sneaking out!”
The whistle blows and West Ham are unbeaten in eight games. We head back to my gaff for a right royal north London knees-up to celebrate drawing away to Liverpool, Chelsea and now Arsenal and consolidating our position in eighth place.
“None of the Big Eight have won today,” remarks Matt, watching Sky Sports News and sipping yet more vintage claret.