FOX Soccer Exclusive
Noble eyes prized FA Cup scalp
When soccer mercenaries come to England, they sometimes need education in the special meaning of the FA Cup. Not home-town heroes like Mark Noble. The West Ham United midfielder, born in the former dockland sprawl of Canning Town, is a true Londoner brought up on tales of the epic journey that leads to Wembley.
He wasn’t born in 1980, when West Ham last triumphantly carried the Cup across the great city to its humble East End, but the deeds of Trevor Brooking – now Sir Trevor – and company in vanquishing Arsenal under the national stadium’s now demolished Twin Towers were immortalized by countless replay. It was an unspectacular header from Brooking, an elegant embodiment of the English gent whom no one can remember stooping before or since, that did the trick and even now it comes straight to mind.
That’s what the FA Cup does. It makes history. Noble and his pals growing up would have been aware that the Hammers had also beaten Fulham at Wembley in 1975 – and Preston North End in 1964. And Noble would certainly know all about how they lost an FA Cup final in 2006, during the event’s temporary move to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff while Wembley was being rebuilt, because by then he was a West Ham player.
He didn’t get on the field while Alan Pardew team’s was putting up a great show in a 3-3 tie with Liverpool but he felt the pain as Liverpool, led by Steven Gerrard won on penalties. Noble was 18 then and now, at 25, he’s the club’s longest-serving player.
Standing in as captain for the suspended Kevin Nolan on New Year’s Day, he gave an inspirational performance in a 2-1 Premier League win against Norwich City, scoring with a penalty and laying on the other home goal for full-back Joey O’Brien. "I managed to wriggle my way past a few players and cut the ball back" was how he modestly described it, but this was a touch of class by a player who has tended to the praised more for his workrate than technique.
Noble is, however, maturing nicely enough to suggest that national head coach Roy Hodgson might add a full England cap to Noble’s collection of age-group honors from Under-16 to Under-21. The Cockney kid was picked 20 times for the Under-21s but then became one of those players for whom the ultimate call never seemed to come; that may change before the season is out if he keeps up current form.
It has been a busy time for most Premier League players, given the English game’s persistence with the tradition of increasing the number of games over Christmas and New Year, but Noble will be hoping coach Sam Allardyce resists the temptation to give him a rest on FA Cup weekend.
His relish for the forthcoming clash with Manchester United at Upton Park (live, Saturday, FOX, 12 p.m. ET) was almost palpable as he declared: "It will be a great atmosphere and a great Cup occasion here, as they always are. When you pick Manchester United out of the hat, you are over the moon, and whatever team the coach puts out I’m sure it will be a strong one to have a right go at them. If we play anything like we did at their place, we’ll have a chance."
They will indeed. At Old Trafford in late November only a super-early – timed at 33 seconds – goal from Robin van Persie separated the teams and high balls into the Manchester United penalty area were a frequent threat. Sir Alex Ferguson’s defense can expect an even more intense bombardment this time.
Sadly big striker Andy Carroll has been out of action along with midfielder Mohamed Diame, a star this season, and Allardyce observed that his squad was stretched over New Year with teenager Elliot Lee, son of former Charlton Athletic and Newcastle United midfielder Rob, on the bench.
A further concern for West Ham is that Manchester United have run into a rich vein of form, especially in attack, where van Persie and Javier Hernandez combined so brilliantly in the destruction of Wigan as to make the England strike force of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck seem almost a second-rate option by comparison.
But the sudden-death properties of the FA Cup can work a magic of their own and the West Ham fans will enhance it, sensing that their team can emphasize their right to a Premier League status secured only last spring with a knockout blow to the leaders. And Noble could be central to that. As the local boy prepares to make good, stand by for a non-stop tussle in the midfield.
Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.