LONDON, February 13 – The FA Cup might be little more than an irritant to England's footballing elite, but for the Premier League also-rans, the competition has far more than mere novelty value.
West Ham and Middlesbrough, who contest a last 16 clash at Upton Park on Saturday, provide a case in point. While the east Londoners wrestle with potentially crippling financial problems, Boro harbour well-founded fears for their top flight survival. For both, this weekend’s fifth round tie represents a welcome distraction.
The need for progress is arguably more pressing for West Ham. With the coffers of the club’s Icelandic owners drained by the credit crunch – majority shareholder Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson is estimated to have lost around 230 million pounds in a matter of months – a cup run would provide a much-needed fillip.
The FA Cup might not yield untold riches but the kudos gained by winning silverware could facilitate the sale of the club, which has yet to attract potential investors since being placed on the market in December.
That gloomy backdrop means West Ham have little option but to class this tie as ‘must-win’.
Hammers manager Gianfranco Zola has long since resigned himself to the idea that he will have to rely on his improvisational skills to draw the best out of his squad, rather than a blank chequebook.
The Italian, taking his first tentative steps into club management, has responded well.
Last weekend’s narrow defeat to the apparently unstoppable Manchester United was the club’s first since December and they are well placed to secure a top-half league finish, as well as a respectable showing in the cup: not bad for a novice.
"What attracted me to the job was to work on the pitch with the players, to work on the idea that you’re doing something to make players better," Zola said.
"My main motivation was that when I was a player, I wanted to learn something new all the time so when I went into management I kept that idea.
"Maybe I can help players to improve. Nowadays it is difficult because people want results from day one but that doesn’t happen in football. When I was a player it took me three years to improve certain parts of my game.
"There is no manager in the world that can change a player or team in a few weeks – unless you can spend millions of pounds on top class players."
That is not an option for Zola and he will hope that West Ham’s combination of raw talents and old heads will be enough to see off Boro, whose tailspin down the league has led to questions being asked of their own personable young manager, Gareth Southgate.
The Teessiders are winless in the Premier League since November 9 and many suspected even the legendary patience of chairman Steve Gibson would have snapped had they exited to Championship leaders Wolverhampton at Molineux in the fourth round.
Boro prevailed that day and Southgate is hoping another away triumph on Saturday will boost the club’s survival chances.
"In recent years the cup games have helped build a platform to improve form in the league and start climbing the table," he said adding, "You want to win something as a player and as a club. If we get past this one, we are only a couple of games away from a trip to Wembley and that always gives a lift to a club.
"We have got to the quarter-finals in the last few years and we want to do that again. It is a great opportunity for us: we are only a few games away from winning a trophy."