The FA Cup third round concludes on Monday night as West Ham take on non-league Stockport County at Edgeley Park.
So far, upsets have been few and far between, with Leeds’ humiliating exit to League Two Crawley the only result to really put the cat among the pigeons.
But long suffering fans of West Ham will know only too well that their side are more than capable of a cup disaster, regardless of how they may be performing and what league their less than glamorous opposition may be playing in.
Minds only need to be cast back to late January 2019, when Manuel Pellegrini – appointed the summer before amid renewed optimism that the Hammers were ready to push on for a spot in Europe – oversaw a calamitous 4-2 fourth round exit at League One basement boys AFC Wimbledon.
On that day, not only were a strong looking West Ham side beaten, they were humiliated and outclassed by a side who were in the relegation mire. “Was I angry at half-time? Yes of course – I was ashamed of them,” Pellegrini admitted at the final whistle (via BBC Sport).
Fortunately, times have changed at West Ham. Pellegrini is no longer at the club and six of the starting XI on that day have departed the London Stadium. Moreover, Michail Antonio, bewilderingly used from the start at right back, is no longer a player thrown in to simply to fill a gap, he’s a rejuvenated character and West Ham’s lead talisman after establishing himself as a powerhouse, nuisance of a striker.
That positional switch was implemented by Pellegrini’s successor at the end of that year, David Moyes. Slowly but surely, the Scot has set about changing the culture and ethos of the club, gradually engraining some of the fibres and fabric that made him such a successful manager at Everton.
“It’s very easy to explain what happened – it was one team who wanted to win [AFC Wimbledon] and another team [West Ham] who played without any desire or any ambition to win or continue in this cup.”
– Manuel Pellegrini, January 2019
Although Moyes’ methods and style of play have been viewed as archaic by some, there’s no doubting that West Ham are reaping the rewards of his stewardship and are winning people around each and every week.
Antonio, troubled by hamstring niggles of late, has become one of the most important players at the club, and recruitment has smartened up significantly – the signings of Jarrod Bowen, Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal attest to that.
But along with dressing room happiness and a real vibrancy and zip to West Ham’s play has come one thing.
Belief in Moyes’ process, belief in the structure and formation of the team, belief in the style of football being played and belief in each other as a collective unit. Those elements, often taken for granted, separate poor sides from good sides, and that’s the leap that West Ham have made under Moyes in the last 12 months.
Now, they face a real test of their character at Stockport. On paper, it should be a routine win and safe passage into the fourth round of the FA Cup. But for West Ham, there’s never been that comfort of taking anything for granted; too many slip-ups and mental scars have seen to that.
A comfortable win here wouldn’t fully heal those old wounds, but it would signify real progress and development of the mental side of West Ham’s game. Furthermore, it would ensure this writer enjoys his Monday night viewing and the spectacle that the FA Cup brings, rather than the fear of something going dreadfully wrong.