West Ham United have been struggling in the league, but their Cup form has been excellent and they breezed past a Derby team who failed to catch light.
Arsenal are out. Liverpool are out. Chelsea are out. The 2022/23 FA Cup is starting to open up a little, and this raises the question of which other Premier League clubs might be able to exploit these relatively early eliminations. Since the turn of the century, these three clubs alone have won the trophy 16 times out of 22.
Could West Ham United find a quite substantial silver lining in the second half of this season, following a first half that was unexpectedly weaker than expected? History would certainly seem to be on their side.
After all, they’ve long found success in the Cup competitions when things haven’t been necessarily going so well in the league. Their FA Cup wins in 1964 and 1975 came against the backdrop of 14th and 13th-placed finishes in the First Division respectively, while their 1980 win came from the Second Division.
And that history has repeated itself this season. While they’ve failed to get any momentum going at all in the league – their recent win against Everton was their first in the league since October 24 – the cups have been West Ham’s happy place. They’ve won eight out of eight in the Europa Conference League, winning their group by a somewhat jaw-dropping ten points, while their Third Round win at Brentford was an early signifier of their recent upturn.
None of this meant that a trip to Pride Park to play Derby County in front of the glare of live television cameras wasn’t a potential accident waiting to happen. Derby took a few weeks to adjust to life in League One, but they started to come together at about the same time as West Ham’s last-but-one Premier League win. A run of fourteen games without defeat has lifted them to fourth place in the table, while they were only knocked out of the EFL Cup by Liverpool after a penalty shootout.
Shortly before kick-off came a blow to West Ham’s hopes of upsetting the applecart in the FA Cup this season, when the winners of this game were drawn away to Manchester United in the next round.
For much of the last ten years, such a draw would have left opponents rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of taking on English football’s most enduring soap opera, but this season has brought about a sudden upturn in form that makes heading to Old Trafford a somewhat less appealing prospect than previously in recent years.
A goal at the start of each half rendered West Ham’s trip to the East Midlands a fairly comfortable affair. They took less than ten minutes to settle.
Jarrod Bowen had a pretty terrible time of things throughout the second half of 2022, but 2023 seems to have started much more positively for him, with two goals against Everton in the Premier League and a smartly-taken opening goal in this game.
It’s fair to say that West Ham will face more difficult opposition than Late Lampardian-era Everton or League One Derby County, but wins are wins and with three now in their last four games a little colour seems to be returning to their cheeks.
And for once, they struck early. This was the first time that West Ham have scored inside the first ten minutes of a game, in any competition,
Scoring relatively early on seemed to knock some of the life out of a previously boisterous home crowd while giving West Ham’s players more of an opportunity to settle. For long periods of the first half, they seemed quite content to surrender possession to Derby, apparently secure in the belief that the home side wouldn’t be able to do a great deal with it.
They repeated the trick at the start of the second half, Michail Antonio heading into an empty goal five minutes in following some lackadaisical Derby defending to double their lead and effectively extinguish any realistic likelihood of a Derby fightback. With ten minutes to play, Derby still hadn’t had a shot on target. By that time, West Ham’s travelling were largely entertaining themselves by singing ribald songs about Chelsea.
Derby County will likely walk away from this game a little disappointed at not having given a better account of themselves. Two divisions is a big gap to have to bridge, but they’ve been going extremely well in the league and will have gone into the game fully aware of the extent to which a win against a Premier League team in the FA Cup on live television would have marked a hugely symbolic milestone on their recovery from their near-death experience. But this proved to be a step too far. They now need to shake this result off and continue to focus on getting back into the Championship at the first attempt.
And West Ham avoided that banana skin. A goal at the start of each half with long periods of excellent game management in between was enough to make a tie that could have gone very badly indeed pass by without major incident. No confidence-bruising defeat. Not even a resource-sapping replay. Just a place in the next round of the FA Cup and another solid performance to build upon their recent wins against Brentford and Everton.
Of course, the problem for West Ham is that the FA Cup hasn’t really ‘opened up’ that much for them this season at all, following that Fith Round draw. Ten years ago, in the season of Manchester United’s last Premier League title win, Sir Alex Ferguson’s last team knocked West Ham in the Third Round. Later that year David Moyes was appointed as his replacement. But even during the soap opera years that followed, Manchester United knocked West Ham out on the way to winning it in 2016 and then again in 2021. Couple that record with their resurgence this season and West Ham will need all their Cup form to come together in the next round of this competition if they’re to progress any further in this year’s competition.
But West Ham are also undergoing a little resurgence of their own, and this was another important win for a team that was looking moribund just a few weeks ago.
This season’s FA Cup might not have opened up for them with the Fifth Round draw, but their Cup form this season has been excellent and both the club and their manager certainly won’t be lacking in motivation to go to Old Trafford and make a game of it. The next round of this competition may well prove to be an instructive marker for the strength of their recent upswing.