Billy Bonds and Alan Pardew, West Ham United managers past and present, have been touched by the magic of the FA Cup and are grateful for the experience. Both also know deep down that there is little more than a sideshow in the distraction of this afternoon's fourth-round tie away to Wolverhampton Wanderers, the club who took West Ham's place in the Premiership last May.
The season's priority at Upton Park is so overwhelmingly a return to the land of milk and money that Glenn Roeder was out before August was, sacked the first time he lost a League game. Although Trevor Brooking immediately steadied the ship, it has been listing since Pardew took over the following month, and a much-changed team are now four points off even a play-off place.
The new man is famous for the goal that won Crystal Palace a stunning 4-3 Cup semi-final success over Liverpool in 1990 before they lost a replayed final to Manchester United. On Friday his eyes sparkled as he recalled: "The semi-final was probably the highlight of my playing career and the final, when we were eight minutes away from winning, brings back special memories. All the managers who've been knocked out ring you and say getting knocked out is the best thing that can happen. But I'm one of the lucky ones who've gone all the way and know what a feeling it generates within the club. The top three clubs in the Champions' League have devalued it at times, but it's still a special competition."
Even after going out of it last spring by six goals to nil against Manchester United, reality dawned too late on the team that was too good to go down. Ten points from the final four games may have been a brave effort, but ultimately meant only a new record for London's version of Manchester City, the Cockney cock-up club: 42 points was the highest total for any side relegated in a 38-game season. Brooking had taken charge for the last three of those matches after Roeder collapsed with a blockage to the brain, and was soon called upon again following his dismissal a mere four matches into the new season.
It took some time and an expensive High Court case to ease Reading's Pardew, quickly identified as the man to get things back on track, into Roeder's seat. Irritatingly, the required run of victories again achieved under Brooking quickly lapsed into a series of draws during which the new man established that further changes would need to be made.
He has already brought in nine new players - most recently the Wimbledon pair Nigel Reo-Coker and Adam Nowland - as well as replacing the coach, Paul Goddard, with Peter Grant "to change the chemistry". And with Jermain Defoe suspended yet again and Tomas Repka still injured, Christian Dailly is likely to be the only member of tomorrow's team who played in the final Premiership game up the road at Birmingham eight short months ago. "We want a new back four," the crowd chanted during one of last season's dismal defensive collapses; they did not bargain for a new goalkeeper, midfield, and forward line as well. "I've been fair and given players and everyone else a decent opportunity," Pardew insists, "but we've never shown top-two form since I've been here."
Financially, it might all have been worse. Had Chelsea, suddenly awash with Russian money, not handed over a generous £6m for Glen Johnson to begin their summer spree, West Ham would have been forced to accept some of the more derisory offers for players such as David James, Joe Cole, Trevor Sinclair and Frédéric Kanouté. The much-abused chairman, Terence Brown, did not even dare to reveal the true position at the time: that relegation would cost £28m and that debts were heading for the £44m finally revealed in November. In addition to transfer income, boosted by another £2m for James this month, £10m was saved in wages by shedding some of the superstars who had managed to get the club relegated.
Those are figures to boggle the mind of someone like Bonds, who as manager barely a decade ago, reckons his squad's total wage bill was £3m at most. He believes the strategy regarding Roeder was flawed, but that in such an ordinary First Division, promotion is still attainable this season. "If Glenn was going to go, it should really have been last Christmas, when they were bottom of the table and drawing at home to people like Bolton and Fulham. When a new manager comes in you normally get a bit of a lift-off, but it hasn't happened this time, so it's put Alan under a bit of pressure already from some of the fans. But it's such an inconsistent League in a below-average year that anyone who can put a consistent run together can get out of this division."
The buccaneering Bonds lifted the Cup as West Ham captain in 1975 and 1980, the latter season becoming one in which a promotion challenge from the (old) Second Division petered out. They cannot afford that to happen this time, though he believes a place in the fifth round is achievable: "I know Wolves have had a couple of great results, but let's be fair, they're a very ordinary Premiership side. West Ham's confidence is fragile but the away form's not bad, and it wouldn't surprise me if they got through."
In the end, though, it is getting through next May that will determine how the season - and with it the manager and board - are judged.
Where have they all gone?
Lee Bowyer to Newcastle United free
Gary Breen Sunderland free
Titi Camara Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia) free
Edouard Cissé PSG free (now on loan Monaco)
Joe Cole Chelsea £6.6m
Paolo di Canio Charlton free
Les Ferdinand Leicester free
David James Manchester City £2m
Glen Johnson Chelsea £6m
Frédéric Kanouté Tottenham £3.5m
Vladimir Labant Sparta Prague free
Scott Minto Rotherham free
John Moncur retired
Ian Pearce Fulham £250,000
Sebastien Schemmel Portsmouth free
Trevor Sinclair Manchester City £2.5m
Raimond van der Gouw RKC Waalwijk free
Nigel Winterburn retired.