Manchester United, West Ham unable to escape FA Cup embarrassment
At this stage, for Premier League teams, the FA Cup doesn't much matter -- unless you lose, and even then, only if you lose in particular circumstances. It seems barely credible in the modern context of the competition that, 24 years ago, a late goal from the substitute Mark Robins in a third-round tie away at Nottingham Forest was credited with saving Sir Alex Ferguson's job at Manchester United.
David Moyes, Ferguson's successor, could have beaten Swansea City comfortably without it making much difference to his standing at Manchester United, but the defeat to Wilfried Bony's last-minute goal amplified the general disgruntlement at Old Trafford.
That's five home defeats this season now for United, and four in the last month. Often when a team is on a bad run, it can seem as though everything goes against it as confidence leads to skittishness at the back and chances being snatched at. The most worrying thing for United is that it couldn't really complain about ill-fortune, even if Moyes tried: Swansea had 10 shots to its seven and was at least United's equal even before Fabio's red card.
The boos at the end suggested just how frustrated many fans are, but there seems little suggestion that the club will go back on its promise to give Moyes time. Nor, given what he said after the game, does there seem much prospect of major investment in the January window, even if the shortcomings in midfield are obvious.
"There is an urgency that we would like to bring people in, but are those players available in January? So there is no point in me hyping it up, because the players we would like to bring in are probably not available in January, not because we don't want to do it," Moyes stated. "I said I would try, but probably would be doubtful in January, because of the window."
The question then is whether Moyes will be given the opportunity to spend in the summer. He was given a six-year contract when he replaced Ferguson as a gesture of faith, and after the way the club has preached about the virtues of stability it would be a major and embarrassing 180-degree turn to dismiss him. There are those who point out that United, at least since the chaos that followed Matt Busby's retirement, has always given managers time, from Dave Sexton to Ron Atkinson to Ferguson, but that was a different era and a different board.
The truth is that nobody knows how the Glazers or the other directors react under the pressure of poor results, because for two decades Ferguson's leadership was inviolable. The Capital One Cup suddenly takes on a far greater importance than United has usually given it: The Red Devils face Sunderland in the first leg of the semifinal on Tuesday.
As for West Ham United's embarrassment at Nottingham Forest, with the youthful side put out by Sam Allardyce beaten 5-0 by the Championship side, was acuter than Manchester United's, but probably less significant. Allardyce also has a Capital One Cup semifinal this week, against Manchester City, and it was probably with an eye on that game that he picked a team featuring three debutants, but still, the margin of the defeat was startling.
West Ham lies second-to-last in the Premier League but Allardyce, paradoxically, benefits from being the 13-highest paid manager in the world. It's estimated that to sack him would cost £6 million, and it's understood that the West Ham board believes that money is better use in buying players than in ousting a manager who has never been relegated.
Allardyce's attitude, though, underlined the general disregard in which the Cup is held. Paul Lambert, of Aston Villa, admitted last week that he "could do without the FA Cup," and not surprisingly, his team was the other Premier League side to go out to lower-league opposition, beaten 2-1 at home by Sheffield United. Given Villa had nine days between that tie and it's next fixture, a Premier League game at home to Arsenal, you wonder just when Lambert would have time for the FA Cup, and the suspicion is the answer is never.
And that is the sad truth of a competition whose arrival each January is marked by a new raft of schemes for how the tournament can be saved. Perhaps giving a Champions League place to the winner rather than the team that finishes fourth in the Premier League would be an option, but fundamentally, people in Sunderland are always going to want to see their team play top-flight opposition rather than Carlisle United: the crowd of 21,973 was almost 20,000 down on the Premier League average -- and that figure was boosted by 5,500 making the relatively short trip across the Pennines from Carlisle.
And that fact perhaps illuminates a wider truth, that the early rounds of the Cup are for the smaller clubs and for their dreams of a giant-killing that will resonate through their history. You would hope the bigger sides would recognize their responsibility on that regard and at least make an effort to reach out for the glory that might await in May, even though the best they can hope for at this stage is to avoid the sort of embarrassment suffered by Moyes and Manchester United.