Sunday, February 15

We're on the march with Franco's Army?

West Ham 1 Middlesbrough 1 (FA Cup)

At least the prices are cheap. It’s only a fiver for each of my kids, so Lola and Nell enjoy egg, chips and beans in Ken’s Café, with added salt and ketchup. Carol is very understanding about their mum’s mysterious turning down of a Valentine’s Day trip to Upton Park.

Then it’s off to the Newham Bookshop to purchase a Horrid Henry Meets the Queen and Ginger Snaps by Cathy Cassidy, as a Boro-accented miscreant bends one of Vivian’s spines. Good day out for the kids so far.

All those pictures of the Middlesbrough semi-final triumph in the programme have me fantasising about Zola’s glorious return to Wembley on May 30. The reality on the pitch is a little different.

Middlesbrough have two good chances in the first ten minutes, with Johnson and Downing shooting wide from good positions. We badly miss the injured Behrami. West Ham are second into tackles and Middlesbrough seem to want Cup glory (and that FA Cup final breakfast with Nigel) more. We come back into the game a little with Collison finding Noble, whose shot is well saved by Jones. James Collins then has a piledriver saved by Jones.

Then on 22 minutes O’Neil crosses, Collins completely misses the ball and Downing, playing in a free role, stoops to head the ball home.

Nell starts to cry. “Daddy can we go home? West Ham are going out of the Cup!” Matt and Lisa say they want to go home too (Nigel is allegedly at a dinner party in Winchester).

Nell goes through a major crisis of belief, asking, “Daddy will West Ham score a goal? They’re going to lose and my day will be ruined!”

It feels like a form of child abuse taking her to Upton Park and maybe I’ll soon have to explain my actions to social services. Even Haringay would probably take them into care.

Everything I have ever learned about parenting has come from football, but even so I have to trawl into my reserves of suitable aphorisms.

“It only takes a second to score a goal,” I say, hoping she’ll think it original wisdom. “And you appreciate winning all the more once you’ve been behind. Try to be like Fraser. He never panics.” Luckily the wine gums in my pocket seem to help her recover.

“Can I throw a peanut at Middlesbrough?” asks Nell, showing worrying potential as a junior ICF member.

"Dad, why are the people behind us being horrible to poor Luis Boa Morte?" asks Lola.

"You're going down with the Tottenham!" chant the Bobby Moore Stand.

West Ham rally too, with Di Michele juggling the ball in Di Canio-esque style before volleying wide. Nell greets every Boro free kick with chants of “Boo Middlesbrough!” which seems to work as they fluff them all.

Carlton Cole is taken off with an ankle injury. Our squad is worryingly thin. Tristan shoots hopelessly into Row Z of the Centenary Stand. Then on half-time Noble’s shot is palmed away by Jones into the path of Collison, who shoots over an open goal.

Lola has to remonstrate with Nell when she gets her Horrid Henry book out at the start of the second half.
“Nell, you can’t read that during the game,” says big sister.
“Yes, the only library is at the Emirates,” adds her dad.
Mind you West Ham have quite a few Horrid Henrys on the pitch and no Perfect Peters.

Alves shoots wide and Green saves smartly from Downing. Boa Morte who has at least got stuck in, has to go off with a facial injury.

Tristan wriggles through to shoot tamely. After a good move between Noble and the impressive Ilunga Di Michele stabs the ball over an open goal. Nell wonders why he’s being called “an anchor” by most of the crowd. Even 10-year-old Lola is moved to say “Flipping hell!” At least her distress at seeing us spoon over great chances seems genuine; maybe we’ve got her for life.

Come on West Ham this is the flipping Cup, our one chance of a trophy. The fans try to make a difference with "We are Franco's claret and blue army!" Sears can’t quite reach a goalmouth melee. We wonder why Savio wasn’t brought on earlier. He impresses in a wide left role and is prepared to run at the Boro players, admittedly from way too deep.

Then on 83 minutes Savio takes a free-kick following a Boro handball wide on the left. His nicely flighted ball evades the Boro defence and is headed home of Herita Ilunga. I find myself hugging Lola and picking up Nell telling her “I told you we’d score!”. I’m also relieved at appearing a little less of a sad loser in my children’s eyes. The winning goal won’t come, but the mood is one of relief that we’re still in.

We head to East Ham tube via the Dr Who shop where the Cybermen look more capable of bagging a goal than some of our players.

“You learned a lesson about faith today,” I tell Nell. “Sometimes you have to keep believing right to the end. And your use of ‘boo Middlesbrough’ seemed to work pretty well too.”

Our name might not be on the FA Cup. But at least we’re in the draw for the quarter-finals. And surely we have to play better in the replay?

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