The demise of West Ham's 2006 FA Cup final team is a cautionary tale of what can happen when mediocre players get too big for their boots
Danny Gabbidon made his first start in the Premier League since December 2007 at Wigan Athletic last weekend. That makes him the only surviving member from West Ham’s FA Cup final team from 2006, the perennially injured Dean Ashton, whose performance that day had left Liverpool bamboozled, notwithstanding. Every other player from that day has been jettisoned. Alan Pardew proudly led West Ham out and was tipped as a future England manager, yet he now manages Southampton in League One.
The enthralling match against Liverpool falls into the category of what might have been. As it approached its end, Pardew’s unfancied West Ham led Liverpool 3-2. The West Ham fans were jubilant, dancing and singing and disbelieving. Then, disaster.
The stadium announcer at the Millenium Stadium was midway through revealing there would be four minutes of added time, when a clearance bounced to Steven Gerrard thirty yards from goal, and with all the deadly precision of a Roger Federer forehand, the Liverpool captain volleyed the ball back into the bottom corner of Shaka Hislop’s goal. The equaliser took the match into extra-time and West Ham, broken-hearted, lost on penalties.
In many ways, this was far more impressive than Portsmouth winning the competition two years later, having only played one Premier League side. West Ham beat Blackburn, Bolton, Manchester City and Middlesbrough to reach the final, where they succumbed to the European champions only on penalties.
Despite the game ending in a glorious defeat, optimism about West Ham’s future prospects soared. Promoted to the Premier League after a two-year absence, Pardew had constructed an exciting side burgeoning with young talent. Aside from their Cup run, West Ham were never out of the top ten of the Premier League and finished ninth, winning at Arsenal and denying Tottenham a Champions League place along the way. Few suspected that this would be the apex of Pardew’s time in charge.
With Uefa Cup qualification assured, pundits and fans predicted big things from West Ham the next season, but the team had reached a level it could not surpass, and the descent was harsh, swift and unexpected. West Ham fell into a comfort zone during the summer, failing to make the requisite reinforcements, instead strengthening on the cheap. The identity of the two remaining signings from that summer, Robert Green and Carlton Cole, suggest what might have been achieved had money been made available. Although there was the stunning capture of the two Argentinians, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, that merely created more problems than originally predicted.
After the final, Pardew could do no wrong, yet his seemingly unstoppable rise up the managerial ladder came crashing to a shuddering halt. He was the success story of the 2005-06 season, his team playing an all-action, quicksilver brand of football that spawned success home and away. Just as importantly, this was a project very much centred upon English players, the likes of Anton Ferdinand, Nigel Reo Coker, Matthew Etherington and Marlon Harewood.
This was a team who had risen from the second tier as one, and as such, a strong unity held them together. Indeed much of West Ham’s success under Pardew was built on a solid team spirit, but it seemed as though that camaraderie was left behind in Cardiff. The problem facing Pardew was hubris. After one season in the big time, one year of being told how great they were, everyone involved, both players and manager, believed the hype. After all, just a year before, this was a team who had threatened not to even make it out of the Championship.
As West Ham toiled in the second tier of English football in 2005, Pardew came under intense scrutiny. He had arrived at Upton Park from Reading in September 2003, taking over from Glenn Roeder who had overseen West Ham’s relegation from the top flight. This was no job for the faint-hearted. Pardew was one of a new breed of English managers, all positive lingo, blue-sky thinking and catchy slogans - for West Ham’s play-off semi-final against Ipswich in 2004, he wore a t-shirt with ‘Moore than a football club’ written on the front.
The future when all is going well, but football’s answer to David Brent when it’s not. West Ham lost 1-0 to Crystal Palace in the final and Pardew attracted ire for taking off his three strikers when in desperate need of a goal. They struggled the next season and Pardew was on the cusp of the sack when a late run helped them into the play-offs, and this time they beat Preston in the final. Pardew had become untouchable, and his status was further embellished by his fledgling Premier League season and Cup run.
Yet the 2006-07 season was disastrous, and the heroic Cup final was soon forgotten. The greatest culprit was Reo Coker, the club captain, whose form took an unsurprising dip after he was denied a move to Arsenal on the last day of the transfer window. He stopped trying and soon attracted abuse from the fans; when he scored a winner against Manchester United, he cupped his ear in defiance to the supporters.
Then no-one remembered that he had nearly won the game against Liverpool in the last minute of extra-time, when Yossi Benayoun’s free-kick looped off his shoulder and towards the top corner, only for Pepe Reina to despairingly touch the ball against the inside of the post.
From the rebound, Marlon Harewood, on his last legs after suffering a rough tackle from Momo Sissoko, shanked wide with his standing left foot. Harewood was a fans’ favourite, his powerful goal in the semi-final against Middlesbrough earning him cult status. He struggled thereafter too, and both he and Reo Coker were sold gratefully to Aston Villa the next season.
They were not the sole culprits. Ferdinand, thinking he had made it, lost his focus and more often than not, opposing strikers. He now plays for Sunderland. Etherington’s threat on the left throughout the season led to talk of an England call, yet he was distracted by off-the-field activities. His effectiveness dimmed, he moved to Stoke City last January. West Ham’s third against Liverpool was scored by Paul Konchesky, a lucky cross which deceived Reina and but for Gerrard, he would have been the match-winner, yet he was a pale shadow of his former self the next season.
The forgotten man of West Ham’s FA Cup adventure is Ashton, the cunning and deadly centre-forward whose career has been cursed by injury. His double against City in the quarter-final was a sign of things to come. He set up Harewood’s semi-final winner, and Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia were unable to handle him in the final.
Ashton had a hand in West Ham’s first goal, cleverly playing in Lionel Scaloni, whose cross was turned into his own net by Jamie Carragher. The lead was doubled shortly after, Ashton pouncing after Reina had spilled Etherington’s shot. He could have scored again when he flashed a shot wide, and it soon became evident that England had a genuine replacement for Alan Shearer. He was called up by Steve McLaren for the first post-World Cup squad, but it was there that he broke his ankle in a challenge with Shaun Wright-Phillips in training.
Ashton’s prolonged absence was as crucial a factor as any for West Ham’s subsequent decline, which was overseen by a beleaguered Pardew. Rampant egotism had afflicted the club and its toxicity engulfed the squad. Certain players enjoyed huge influence in the dressing room, and Ashton was one player who felt like an outsider. Palermo swatted West Ham aside in the first round of the Uefa Cup, and rather than another top-half finish, they became embroiled in a relegation battle, only won on the last day of the season.
Although Pardew was seen as one of English football’s brightest young managers, his stock swiftly plummeted. He was unable to handle the disruptive influence residing forming in his squad or the two world-class Argentinians thrust his way. The team were suspicious of Tevez and Mascherano, and made them less than welcome.
So was Pardew. They had been brought to West Ham by the agent Kia Joorabchian, who had an interest in purchasing the club. So too did an Icelandic consortium, headed by Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and fronted by Eggert Magnusson, and they eventually came up with the money.
Against the backdrop of an ownership battle, Pardew’s days were numbered, and after a distressing 4-0 thrashing by Bolton in December 2006, he was sacked. He moved to Charlton a few weeks later, but West Ham stayed up in their place and they now reside in League One, alongside Pardew’s new club, Southampton.
West Ham replaced Pardew with Charlton’s former manager Alan Curbishley. He struggled too, and less than a month into his reign, West Ham lost 6-0 to Reading. Cliques had formed in the squad and Curbishley, old-school to the core, had them in mind when he spoke damningly of the ‘Baby Bentley Culture’ which had pervaded the club. Eventually, and with a fair slice of luck, West Ham survived. The damage was done though and one by one, the remnants of that team were purged.
Only one can say he went on to bigger and better things, Benayoun, who is now starring for Liverpool. Most of the rest went sideways, downwards or found a spot on a substitute’s bench. If nothing else, it is a cautionary tale of what can happen when mediocre players get too big for their boots. They usually end up shooting themselves in the foot.