Next Monday under floodlights at Upton Park, West Ham will face Stoke City. In the hurly-burly of the Premier League, it's another tussle for three points but long, long ago in another competition in another era for football, similar games between the same opponents produced a series of matches of epic proportions. Those who were lucky enough to see the games describe them as some of the best football matches they have ever witnessed. This is the story of those games.
It's a tale about a fantastic cup run in which West Ham beat some of the best teams of the day, eventually taking part as odds-on favourites in one of the great cup semi-finals decided over four games and 420 pulsating minutes before cruel fate and controversy intervenes to ensure it all ends in heart-breaking defeat. It may not be the type of story that you think will need re-telling after 40 years, but in many ways, the 1971/2 League Cup run is everything that West Ham United represents.
Like it or loath it, the very reason that you - young or old - support the Hammers can be laid bare on a miserable, cold, rain-sodden Manchester night in January 1972. Read on if you dare.
The League Cup run of 1971/2 began as it always does on a late summer evening when seasons hopes are high and anything is possible. The League Cup - now the Capital One Cup - was a secondary competition virtually invented to provide Championship sides (Premier League) with, initially another shot at gaining some silverware, later via a Wembley appearance and then, as the competition gained popularity, another chance at competing in Europe as the winners qualified for a European berth.
As things turned out though, the competition often threw up odd results, most significantly when Swindon beat Arsenal in the final in 1969. Not that West Ham was expected to end up us ignominious failures in 71/72 though, the Daily Express having already tipped the Hammers for the cup before a ball was even kicked.
In fact, West Ham at that time were an interesting side; still managed by Ron Greenwood, two of the World Cup winners were still there, the mighty Moore with his powers undiminished and Geoff Hurst still valuable for 20+ goals a season. Elsewhere, England prospects Frank Lampard, John McDowell, the elegant Trevor Brooking and hoped-for Moore clone Tommy Taylor were regulars. Billy Bonds was a wilder man in those days and he wasn't thought to be England material but he was a great club player nonetheless, while a young ginger-haired whippet called Harry Redknapp could be both brilliant or not depending on his mood. High hopes were still held for the big Bermudan striker Clyde Best and wearing the No: 11 shirt was one of the greatest players never to represent his country: Bryan 'Pop' Robson.
The Second Round draw paired the Hammers at home against Second Division Cardiff City. It should have been easy even if the visitors were led by an impressive Welshman called John Toshack but, as ever, the Hammers stumbled against lower opposition and, although Bonds put the home side ahead, Cardiff equalised through Alan Foggon and a replay at Ninian Park was required. In the interim though, the 3rd Round cup draw had thrown up an interesting prospect: the winners faced a home game against Don Revie's loathed and reviled but nonetheless brilliant, Leeds United - the Manchester United / Chelsea of their day
It's debatable who got most out of the prospects of the cup draw but, in a replay they were expected to lose, it was West Ham who came through in extra time against Cardiff after Hurst scored two vital goals in a 2-1 win.
It is a truth that when you think you have West Ham understood they surprise you. As my Granddad used to say of the Irons "Always expect the unexpected" and so it was that night. The eventual score was 0-0 but nobody knew how. The Hammers mercilessly battered Leeds and only excellent and brutal defending - particularly by Jack Charlton - allowed the Yorkshire side to escape with a draw. Under floodlights, with the 35,000 plus crowd baying and swaying, it was described then as 'one of the best goalless games you could hope to see'. Even so, a draw was a gutting result. A replay at Leeds - and nobody won at Elland Road.
In the days before all games were covered by TV even if only for the goals, the replay in Leeds remains a mystery. Even the radio didn't feel the need to report on every ball kicked in every part of the country but it didn't take a genius to learn that something special happened in Yorkshire that night when the result filtered through: Leeds United 0 West Ham 1 after extra time with Clyde Best scoring. The fans delirium was soon tempered by the thought of the next opponents though; the team who were to go on to win the league that season were the Hammer's next opponents, Bill Shankly's Liverpool.
An incredible 40,870 people piled into Upton Park to see this fourth round game. If the place was heaving for the Leeds visit then the bar was, if anything rose even higher for the visit of Liverpool. The old Upton Park under floodlights was always a magical venue but that night the crowd were enthralled by a game described by Desmond Hackett in the 'Daily Express' as 'one of the greatest games I have seen for years'.
The Hammers dominated the first half but went behind to a Bobby Graham goal and, with Geoff Hurst limping, it looked as if the cup run was to end, but Hurst's injury actually contributed to the Hammer's equaliser as the England man coming back painfully slowly from an attack was just in the right spot when Tommy Smith back-headed the ball to him following a Clyde Best shot. Interesting to note that Hackett's match report of the night mentions West Ham's 'notorious ill-luck' - you thought it was a new thing when you look at Dean Ashton? - and, with Hurst being replaced at half-time, the Hammers chances of getting through to the next round looked even slimmer as Liverpool looked for the replay back at Anfield. But then something magical happened.
The Hammer's keeper Bobby Ferguson threw the ball out to John McDowell who slipped it through to Harry Redknapp. 'Arry set off on a mazy run down the west side wing evading tackle after tackle for a full 30 yards until the by-line loomed and the ginger one looked as if he was sure to end in a heap in front of the photographers fronting the South Bank. But, it didn't happen. Instead, Redknapp crossed from the tightest of angles, the ball flew over an outstretched Clemence in the Liverpool goal and was met at the far post by Pop Robson, rising like a salmon to power in. It was glorious. Upton Park erupted; the Hammers celebrated and the dreaded replay on Merseyside was averted as they ran out 2-1 winners.
The papers the following day summed it up: 'West Ham - Pride of London'. When fans berate our ex-boss for his association with Spurs or, more likely, his annoying habit of remaining unbeaten against us, it's not the saggy chops that I see when I hear his name. Instead I see a skinny, ginger haired kid in shiny boots flying towards the South Bank at full speed and crossing a ball with speed and accuracy.
It was the 5th round now - the quarter finals - and once again the draw had given West Ham a home tie but equally it was against opponents Greenwood would not have chosen given the opportunity. This time the team due to visit Upton Park were already riding high at the top of the First Division, a side already being tipped to become perhaps the 'new Leeds', a side bristling with inventive football who'd already won at Upton Park in the league, the Hammer's next opponents were….. Sheffield United?
In 1972, Sheffield was celebrating their second season back in the big league. By November they were top of the division and, with players like the much-abused Trevor Hockey - a man who made weird-beard Derek Hales look like he suffered from alopecia - Alan Woodward and a young Tony Currie, the Blades were a team expected to go far. The Saturday before the cup game, Sheffield came to the Boleyn and won 2-1 and went into the quarter final expecting to complete a double. They didn't. In another magical night, West Ham simply blew them away in a 5-0 thrashing that could have run into double figures, so dominant were the men in claret and blue, playing scintillating football that had the home crowd - another 36,000 plus - roaring and singing as Sheffield chased shadows. The defeat was so epic that the Blades were never the same after, slipping down the league to finish 10th.
At Upton Park though, the celebrations went long into the night as Hammers fans looked forward to a semi-final - the first since the glory days of the mid-sixties - against perennial bridesmaid side Stoke City. The semi-final meant a two-legged affair so at least one match was guaranteed under the Upton Park floodlights.
The saga was about to begin.