Usually for teams fighting for their lives to stave off relegation, cup runs are often just a distraction. The real business is survival within the lucrative Premier League and they see their chances of genuine cup success as being a long shot at best. But the Hammers’ run to firstly the semi-finals of the Carling Cup, and now the sixth round of the FA Cup, have been a source of success in an otherwise disappointing and disjointed campaign. However, for their manager, Avram Grant, this is an entirely familiar situation.
Grant’s last job was at Portsmouth, where his record was strangely similar. Indeed, in the six months he was in charge at Fratton Park, his side recorded as many Premier League wins as they did FA Cup victories. There were some outstanding wins in there too; the 2-0 triumph over Tottenham was undoubtedly the side’s most complete performance of the season, while Premier League sides Birmingham and Sunderland were both dumped out en route to the final. But for one reason or another, Pompey weren’t able to replicate their cup form in the league.
The Blues were comfortably relegated thanks in part to their 10-point deduction for entering administration, but their FA Cup run showed glimpses of a very capable side. Back to the present day, and Grant’s charges find themselves staring at a similar and altogether unwanted situation. West Ham toppled a strong Sunderland side away from home in the League Cup, while Stoke and Birmingham were both beaten at Upton Park in the same competition (although Birmingham knocked them out in the second-leg), yet the Hammers have been unable to repeat the feat in the three league games when they have come up against the same two sides.
A weakened Manchester United side were also put to the sword at Upton Park, as Grant’s men impressively swept the Red Devils away in a brilliant 4-0 romp. They have certainly faced weaker sides than United’s ‘second string’ in the league, yet not found a similar level of ruthlessness since.
So who, or what, is to blame for Grant’s recent cup successes and league failures? Is he simply getting the team more motivated for the cup competitions, or is it the pressure that comes with staving off relegation that inhibits his side so dearly? The facts don’t seem to lie, and there can be only so much put down to coincidence. This is a Hammers side with some quality players in their ranks, but just as Pompey last year, they have struggled to pick up points in the league.
Grant has represented something of a mystery since arriving in England. His gloomy demeanour and rigid tactics have been consistent throughout his management reigns, but he was under-credited and unloved at Chelsea, before being arguably over-credited and adored at Portsmouth. His fate at Upton Park will no doubt have many more twists and turns before the season is out, but the league is referred to in many quarters as the ‘bread and butter’ of football management, and it is this record upon which Grant will ultimately be judged.