Stewart Downing up for the cups to spark West Ham revival
Being known as a "Cup team" is a mixed compliment, implying the ability to raise your game for one-off occasions, but never to sustain it. If Wigan Athletic, FA Cup winners relegated within a week, are newcomers to the genre, West Ham United have been at it rather longer.
Fifty years ago this weekend, they set off on a glorious run that in successive seasons brought Wembley triumphs in the FA Cup, the European Cup Winners' Cup and – Alf Garnett and his fellow supporters have always insisted – the World Cup itself.
Yet over those three years, a team including the fabled trio of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters could never finish higher than ninth in the League. Indeed, despite adding two further FA Cups in that half a century, one sixth place (1973) and a third (1986) is the best the club have managed, going down no fewer than five times.
It is not untypical then, that while in danger of a potentially calamitous sixth relegation two years before moving into the Olympic Stadium, they face two high-profile Cup ties in the next four days: away at Nottingham Forest this afternoon and in the semi-final of the Capital One Cup at Manchester City on Wednesday.
A couple of away wins against local rivals Tottenham, including in the previous round of the latter competition, have been the only highlights of the season – not what Stewart Downing signed up for when reluctantly leaving Liverpool last summer.
"This team finished tenth, Andy Carroll missed a bit of last season and I looked at it and thought this is a team that can kick on," the former England winger said before training on Friday. "With the players we have and the signings Sam [Allardyce] made, I felt we had a good chance of nicking one of the European spots. One of the reasons I came here was to play with Andy."
With Downing feeding the big centre-forward from one flank and either Matt Jarvis or Ricardo Vaz Te on the other, Allardyce's transfer and tactical strategies were obvious. They depended too heavily, however, on the key figures being fit, and all four have suffered injuries at various times.
Carroll's have been the worst and he has yet to play, which has meant relying on the inferior version of him that is Carlton Cole, the raw potential of Modibo Maiga or, for a spell before Christmas, no striker at all.
Downing himself is only just back from a lay-off, and as one of the senior pros at the club he may have to start either or both of the next two games alongside a crop of youngsters rather than being held back for a different sort of "Cup tie" away to fellow strugglers Cardiff City on Saturday.
At 29, he has seen highs and lows that include a League Cup win with Liverpool and relegation with his home-town club Middlesbrough. Now he hopes that some Cup success could rub off in the League for West Ham: "I see any game, League or Cup, as a chance to win and get confidence. The League is first and foremost the most important thing for us but we have two Cup games coming up and the manager wants to win.
"I won it at Liverpool in a difficult season, we finished eighth, but I look back at the Carling Cup and think 'what a day that was'. It's a great experience, it's what you're in football to do and winning trophies is what you look back on."
He can technically claim an earlier League Cup success, having been an unused substitute when Middlesbrough beat Bolton 2-1 in the final 10 years ago. Now he finds himself playing for the losing manager that day, who has been made the bookmakers' favourite as next for the chop.
Even if allowed to have a bet, Downing would not be doing so: "The talk goes on because all the other teams at the bottom have lost their managers and people think it's obviously time for Sam to go next. The easiest thing is to blame the manager but I think he does very well in taking a lot of pressure off the players.
"He is a good manager to play for. As a whole he has been very unlucky with injuries. As Kev Nolan said, 'if your team is struggling who do you go and get? A manager who is a motivator like Sam Allardyce'. The owners here know they have a good manager, they see the bigger picture, that when we get players back we have got a decent team."
Nottingham Forest v West Ham is on ITV1 today, kick-off midday
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