Though we might barely be two months into the new season, the nights are already drawing in, the Saturday afternoons are getting colder, and teams beginning to nestle into the comfort of midtable are already allowing their eyes to wander to that most glorious of distractions from the slog of a league campaign: the cup run.
Sure, unless you’re Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal or Wigan Athletic, the chances of actually lifting the FA Cup are infinitesimal, but that doesn’t mean that, for at least two games a season, supporters can’t dream that this might finally be the year they make it to Wembley, before having their hearts broken by some lower league cloggers managed by Graham Westley on a wet afternoon in February.
One man who knows the true heartache of a cup defeat more than most is this week’s guest. Co-host of the peerless 90s Football podcast Quickly Kevin Will He Score? alongside Josh Widdicombe and Michael Marden, as well as a lifelong sufferer of West Ham United, we’re delighted to welcome Chris Scull to Losing My Favourite Game, as he looks back on a balmy night in Bedfordshire more than 25 years ago.
Luton Town 3-2 West Ham United
FA Cup Sixth Round Replay
23rd March 1994
Ever since I started supporting West Ham, I considered reaching the semi final of the FA Cup the absolute pinnacle of our sporting ambition. It’s perhaps the case for me, and indeed most West Ham supporters, that we’re burdened with a pragmatic realism that borders on utter pessimism.
I can honestly say that the people in my life that have the most visceral hatred of West Ham United are the very people who are the most committed West Ham fans, home and away, that I’ve ever met. Our very own club anthem, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, features the somewhat depressing line “and like my dreams, they fade and die”. Sometimes, I have to stop and remind myself that this refrain is sung to our heroes in an effort to cheer them on.
So I’d say that the West Ham supporter’s collective psyche rarely lets itself get carried away with such emotions as positivity and hope. We know we’re not going to win the cup every year; but for me, going to a showpiece semi-final day out would be an unparalleled footballing paradise. The pomp and ceremony. The excitement. The neutral venue.
Let’s roll the clock back a little. I would say that in 1994, at 11 years old, I was unshackled from the footballing pragmatic realism of today; running wild, with a claret and blue scarf, a home shirt with Martin Allen’s name on the back and the care-free exuberance which only youth can provide.
I had got my first season ticket in the 1992/93 season; a campaign which found The Hammers outside the top tier for the Premier League’s inaugural season. But as a consequence of dropping down, we, alongside Newcastle, were by far the biggest footballing fishes in the old-money First Division pond. And not only that, but we were whipping teams up and down the country almost every week. We had Julian Dicks marauding the wing and terrorising everyone in the process, Big Ludek Miklosko looked the best keeper in the division and tricky winger Mark Robson was flying past opposition defences like he was invisible.
If this was supporting West Ham, I was very much on-board. I’d say I’ve watched the VHS of that season review more than any other video. I’m confident I could still rattle off most of the commentary on it from memory. By the summer of 1993, we were back in the top flight along with Newcastle and Swindon. How hard could it be?
Things began with a ‘Classic West Ham’ trope as our star signing of the summer, striker Dale Gordon, scored our first Premier League goal, got crocked, then didn’t score another goal and left 3 years later after only making another 10 appearances. Meanwhile Dicks, on account of his chain-smoking, loose training and undisciplined nature, found himself sold to Liverpool where he finished the 93/94 season by scoring the last ever goal in front of the old Kop, before rejoining the Hammers a few months later.
But while the Irons slowly plodded through those autumn and winter months toward inevitable lower-mid table safety, something strange was happening. A fortuitous cup run was building.
I’ve always thought the key to a good cup run, for West Ham at least, is being consistently drawn against inferior opposition. I appreciate this isn’t a revelatory statement; but while there are some clubs who revel in a local derby, or a big team in the cup, nothing makes my heart sink lower. No, for West Ham succeed, we need to be regularly drawn against the kind of team who’ll turn up with their goalkeeper driving the coach.
Through January and February 1994, the stars started to align. We dispatched lower league Watford 2-1. Then pipped past lower league Notts County 1-0 in a replay, after drawing 1-1 in the first leg.
Then the surest sign yet that this season was destined for my coveted FA Cup semi final spot and the chance for glory: we drew non-league minnows Kidderminster Harriers in the fifth round. A team so lowly they didn’t even appear to have a real name. A team so bereft of quality, I had serious doubts about whether they’d be able to afford the requisite football to play the match.
In classic West Ham fashion, we made incredibly hard work of it, nicking a wholly unrepresentative 1-0 victory despite a series of scares and a commentator revelling in the classic cliche that “it wasn’t clear who the Premier League team was on this evidence”. Actually, looking back on this ‘run’ for this article. It’s clear to me that we were incredibly lucky on the draw. And incredibly rubbish in those games.
Nevertheless, we were in the draw. I’m sure it took place on a Sunday night, with 90s football icon Graham Kelly presiding over his famous black balls. I can honestly say that evening was the most excited I’ve ever been about a cup draw. It might be the only time I’d memorised all the draw numbers in advance. But there were only two numbers I was interested in; those of West Ham, and the crappest team left in the draw, Luton Town.
And then.. it happened. West Ham out first, Luton out second. We would be at home to the most clueless amateurs this side of Kidderminster. All that stood between me and my dream of a showpiece FA Cup semi final day out was a group of sporting hacks battling relegation a whole league below.
So to Upton Park. Get an early goal, squash their morale. Get another couple later on as the game stretches. Then worry about semi final tickets. That was the plan… but this is West Ham. And West Ham is what happens when you’re making other plans. We struggled. Neither side shone. Like two blindfolded men in an east London ditch, scrapping with unwieldy pugil sticks made of distinctly average footballer. Another game where the commentator couldn’t tell the supposed difference in class.
There was one moment though, and I think about it to this day, where our Liverpudlian midfielder Mike Marsh flicked a header which bounced beyond Luton’s diving keeper and onto the post, then out of play. It’s the sliding doors moment I’d obsess about the most; until a certain Steven Gerrard found the ball at his feet at an absurd distance in the dying moments of the 2006 FA Cup final.
If Mike Marsh scores that, my sporting heart wouldn’t have been broken until the Euro 96 semi final. If Mike Marsh scores that, my family would’ve had that day out at Wembley against Chelsea in the spring of ’94. If Mike Marsh scores that, I’m sat here writing an article about any number of West Ham misfortunes in the years that followed. But alas, it hit the post. Sliding doors. To Kenilworth Road.
Recalling it now feels like recalling a car crash or shock inducing trauma. The memories are burned into my psyche and framed with lightning. We went a goal up; my favourite player Martin Allen opening the scoring. But rather than accelerate ahead, Luton equalised with the feet of the son of Showaddywaddy’s guitarist Trevor; Scott Oakes. Then Oakes scored again, my throat tightened. I remember from this point on I watched the game on my knees in front of the telly.
Early in the second half Ian Bishop equalised for West Ham and dived into the claret and blue away end. But we know how this all ends. Of course we do. Steve Potts caught in possession on the halfway line. Scott Oakes intercepts and races away like he’s ice skating, while our back peddling defence looks like it’s running through 3 feet of water. Miklosko rushes out half-heartedly. Ball flies past him and in. Bedlam. And heartache.
Then the dying embers of the game. The first time I’d really experienced the utter desperation of football fandom. Watching time race away. The ball caught in midfield, no chance to get it forward. The referee reaching for his whistle. My head in my hands. The first time a game of football had made me cry.
I remember my Dad being aghast that football had brought me to tears; it was probably at that moment he realised I’d truly caught the bug. I would’ve gone to my bedroom that night, its walls covered in posters of my West Ham heroes. Heroes who’d let me down for the first time. To Luton Town. Luton bloody Town. Scott bloody Oakes. Show-bloody-waddywaddy.
You never forget the first time football broke your heart. Having witnessed two relegations since, I can honestly say nothing hurt more than that night. Defeats, like that game, steel you and make you hardier. And that’s how the West Ham dream-dying, pessimistic, pragmatic psyche has evolved; its easier mentally to live without hope, because you’re better prepared for when disaster does strike. Oh West Ham. Like my dreams, they fade and die.
Thanks to Chris for sharing those painful 90s memories. Series Five of the ‘Quickly Kevin Will He Score’ Podcast will be available on all podcast providers in November. For more information, or to catch up on previous shows, head to the Quickly Kevin website.