Date: 4 January 2020
Having lost 0-4 less than 72 hours earlier, a team made up of mostly the same players ran out 4-0 winners today.
Fans were surprised by the strong line-up selected, but maybe these players needed to get West Ham behind them as quickly as possible. And in any case it’s eight days till the next first team match. So fringe players like Dobre, Kilkenny and Surridge didn’t start after all – and there were no unheard-of youngsters on the bench, unlike previous cup matches. We lined up in the 4-2-3-1 system that many fans had been asking for.
The team started very brightly, Solanke (fed by Rico) having an early shot pushed round the post and Harry Wilson shooting over the bar not long after. This early flurry of activity was rewarded when Billing – of all people – scored off another Rico cross with just eight minutes on the clock. 1-0. And by the quarter hour mark the scoreboard had gone on to 2-0 as Solanke appeared to have at last scored a competitive goal for the club (a header) after a year of waiting – except that VAR decided there was an offside infringement so it didn’t count. This was almost certainly the Luton fans’ first experience of VAR, and it does seem somewhat unfair that if this match had been played – in the same round of the same competition – at a ground that doesn’t have VAR facilities, the goal would have stood, because the lineswoman hadn’t flagged it.
Billing somewhat undid his earlier success in front of goal when he was guilty of a very poor pass that gave the ball to ex-Bournemouth player Harry Cornick, who was now one-on-one against Travers; and Travers did very well to prevent him scoring. Subsequently a Stanislas pass also went awry; Stanislas was our only weak like today but maybe he’s not truly match-fit yet. With the score at 1-0 things were tense and we all knew Luton could equalise at any moment and we’d rue missed opportunities earlier. And then indeed, in the fourth of four minutes’ added time, Billing appeared to let us down again when he gave away a penalty. What a time for Luton to score! But their penalty-taker hit the crossbar, resulting in relief all round as the half-time whistle was blown.
The second half began along similar lines until Stanislas was replaced by Callum Wilson on 66 minutes, the team switching to 4-4-2; and Callum scored within what seemed like only seconds – and certainly with his first touch – when Harry Wilson passed to him from Bournemouth’s right! On 78 minutes Eddie made his second substitution, Steve Cook for Rico – with Simpson being moved to left back as in recent games. And within a minute Billing had scored again, albeit a deflected shot. He was now on a hat-trick, and for the rest of the match every time he got the ball – anywhere on the pitch – fans shouted “shoot!” I hope he understands English humour! He went on to get the sponsors’ ‘man of the match’ but the sponsors obviously hadn’t noticed how he’d nearly given away as many goals as he’d scored.
Just a minute or so later, Solanke scored (Callum being the provider) and this one really did count! No-one had needed goals for their confidence more than Billing, Callum Wilson and Solanke, and now they’d all scored in the one game. We were 4-0 up, and the previously noisy Luton fans (who’d relentlessly informed us that we were going “down with the Watford” throughout the first half) were now silenced. The referee appeared to take pity on them when he only added a single minute to this half. 4-0, and a welcome clean sheet too.
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
Francis (7), Mepham (7), Simpson (7), Rico (8);
Billing (7), Surman (7);
H Wilson (7), Stanislas (5), Fraser (7);
Francis, S Cook, Mepham, Simpson;
H Wilson, Billing, Surman, Dobre;
C Wilson, Solanke