Avram Grant needs to buy himself some time. Again. Saturday's limp home defeat by Newcastle United brought West Ham United's promising run of five games unbeaten to a resounding stop.
The home side's meek capitulation betrayed the brittle and fragile nature of West Ham's confidence. There had been signs of improvement in the past month during an unbeaten run that included a Premier League victory over high-flying Tottenham Hotspur in late September that raised hopes of better things to come. After the worst start to a season in the club's 115-year history, it was hoped by the Upton Park fans that the result could be the catalyst for a climb up the league table.
Grant, the West Ham manager, is likely to be given time, despite rumours that the club's co-owners have privately wondered if they made the right decision in handing the Israeli the comfort of a four-year contract in May. Neither David Gold nor David Sullivan have yet to make any kind of public statement undermining their manager in the way they did last season when the rookie Gianfranco Zola was in the midst of what proved to be a successful fight against relegation.
Yet Grant cannot afford to see his team booed off the pitch, as they were following Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Newcastle, too many times. Tonight's Carling Cup tie against Stoke City provides Grant and his team the opportunity to dispel some of the gloom that followed Saturday's poor second-half performance. However, it is also a dangerous moment: another defeat could be disastrous for morale, both among supporters and within the club, with West Ham still bottom of the Premier League and contemplating a visit to Arsenal on Saturday afternoon.
The stakes are high for co-owners Gold and Sullivan, who admit they have pumped £30m into the club they bought in January, which has already been eaten up in trading losses. That is on top of the £50m they jointly spent buying more than 60 per cent of the shares.
Victory tonight would put West Ham into the last eight of the Carling Cup and a game away from a lucrative two-legged semi-final with the prospect of a Wembley final going to the victor. These extra games would provide much-needed extra revenue to a club that is working hard to avoid becoming the next Leeds United.
Since Gold and Sullivan took over 10 months ago, West Ham have paid back £20m to the banks, cut their running costs by £6m and have increased their income by £2m. A decent cup run would certainly help the vice-chairman Karren Brady in her endeavours to put the club on a more viable financial footing.
It would also strengthen the position of Grant, who is earning respect within the club for the steady way he is plotting the team's revival but who knows he must quickly find a way to convert improvements into victories.
The recent unbeaten run proved as much. West Ham conceded 12 goals in their opening four Premier League games, all of which they lost, but sorted things out in training to concede just four in their next four, in which they went unbeaten. That four-game streak, however, contained one win and three draws, and at the end of it West Ham still occupied bottom place in the league table.
At the start of the season, when results were dreadful, Grant appealed for more time. "After 10 or 15 games we'll have a better idea what the situation is," the Israeli said following August's 3-0 defeat to Manchester United. Two months on, and after nine league games and two Carling Cup ties, things have not measurably improved.
Grant maintains the team is stronger now than it was in the summer. He said: "We are mentally better. In this subject you can improve a lot. You cannot take a slow player and make him fast but you can give a player tools and ideas to be much stronger. I believe in this very much and we have seen it. We have improved a lot. We will continue to work on this."
Grant remains something of a Marmite figure within the game. Some people think he is wonderful, and point to his limited success at Chelsea and Portsmouth as evidence he will turn things around at West Ham. Others claim he is out of his depth, and cite his record at losing two finals with Chelsea and his inability to prevent Portsmouth being relegated last season.
Grant received strong support from Gold last week who suggested a change of manager is the last thing the club's owners want. The fact that West Ham cannot afford to pay off the manager and his three assistants – Zeljko Petrovic, Paul Groves and David Coles – certainly increases their job security.
Gold said: "Avram's under no pressure, he's doing a fantastic job. He came to a football club that would normally have got relegated, with 35 points. So really what he has done is take over a relegated club, to all intents and purposes, and we're building.
"If we were going backwards we would be worried, but every day you can see this club strengthening under the regime of Avram Grant."
Interesting psychology from Gold, calling West Ham a "relegated club" even though they finished 17th. It suggests that Gold and Sullivan have been won over by Grant's argument that it will take time for West Ham to turn the corner.
Yet a busy fixture list next month sees them travel to Arsenal, Birmingham City and Liverpool while they host West Bromwich Albion, Blackpool and Wigan Athletic, who have all managed notable victories away from home. Getting out of this mess will demand all of Grant's managerial nous and talent.
He needs a win tonight to rebuild belief that his team are strong enough to fight their way out of trouble, and to demonstrate that he is up to the task of taking West Ham forward. Lose tonight, even on penalties, and that task will be all the harder.
Tonight Stoke City (H) Carling Cup
Saturday Arsenal (A) Premier League
Sat 6 Nov Birmingham (A) Premier League
Wed 10 Nov WBA (H) Premier League
Sat 13 Nov Blackpool (H) Premier League
Sat 20 Nov Liverpool (A) Premier League
Sat 27 Nov Wigan (H) Premier League
Sun 5 Dec Sunderland (A) Premier League
Sat 11 Dec Manchester City (H) Premier League
Sat 18 Dec Blackburn Rovers (A) Premier League
Sun 26 Dec Fulham (A) Premier League
Tues 28 Dec Everton (H) Premier League