It was only when those dreaded, if cliched, words "vote of confidence" cropped up that Sam Allardyce cracked into a smile. The suggestion from the floor was that the backing offered by David Gold and David Sullivan earlier this week might actually constitute bad news. "Does it?" he offered ruefully. "Well, I wasn't backed by my last two chairmen and got sacked for no reason at all, so I won't take that into consideration."
A dose of gallows humour felt rather appropriate. West Ham United, a team without a league win since November and thrashed 5-0 by lower league opposition in the FA Cup on Sunday, ought to address the first leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final on Wednesday buoyed by the reality they are two games from Wembley. The only problem is the side last but one in the top flight must confront Manchester City – a team just shy of the summit – with resources still horribly stretched. Mark Noble may be ready to return from a calf complaint but that will still leave only 15 fully-fit senior outfield players from which to choose and a trip to Cardiff City, rivals immediately above the cut-off, to come on Saturday.
Life has long since descended into a battle at Upton Park, the kind of scrap most clubs would normally like Allardyce to take on but a predicament for which the manager will concede some culpability. The Cup drubbing at Nottingham Forest was inflicted on a youthful selection necessitated by league toils and the semi-final to come, but there have been only two wins in all competitions since October. There is no appetite for change but that record alone puts the 59-year-old's job on the line, even taking into account the £6m in compensation required to pay off him and his backroom staff, with the next few weeks to define whether his tenure is prolonged. This club cannot afford to go down. The open letter published by the joint chairmen was aimed at creating a united front but more than 3,000 West Ham supporters will still travel to the Etihad Stadium in some trepidation.
"Everyone is bound to be talking about the club, and particularly about my position, because of where we are, and that's why I was pleased to see the statement both chairmen made," Allardyce said. "In my managerial experience those lines of communication are critical, particularly in times that aren't so good. It's the first time we've had to cope with this amongst ourselves. Hopefully we will come through it all together. I keep in contact with the owners on a regular basis: actually, on a daily basis, particularly with David Sullivan in trying to bring in new players. I would be more worried if that communication went quiet.
"Most of the West Ham fans I meet are very positive, and not the minority who show their disapproval. It's only a minority, not a majority. The people I see and bump into around Canary Wharf, around the ground, or before games away from home asking for autographs and pictures, they're always very positive. The negative side of it, people getting disgruntled, you understand the frustration because people want to see results. We understand they pay the money and are able to do that. But it is still a minority. The only way to make them feel better is by winning games of football."
The eagerness to strengthen the squad, with the 6ft 8in striker Lacina Traoré, expected to join on loan from Monaco before the weekend pending the approval of a work permit, reflects Allardyce's desperation to inspire a recovery. Certainly, faith is retained within the squad that a man who steered Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers through choppy waters can do the same at Upton Park. "I don't believe there's another manager out there who you'd want in charge of this club at this time," said the midfielder Matt Taylor. "Sam is an extremely experienced manager. I don't think the situation would have been any better had someone else been brought in. Look at the teams he has managed and success he has had keeping them in the Premier League."
There are opportunities ahead to hoist themselves free of trouble, even with Saturday's fixture at Cardiff "the biggest game of the season so far" according to Taylor, the focus is on the Etihad. Allardyce will fling Roger Johnson straight into his side following his loan move from Wolves of League One, a centre-half who can aspire to combat City's imposing aerial strength.
"That's another area where you have to compete with them, as well as their ability to play football on the floor," Allardyce said. "See how many goals they score with their heads: the people who provide the expert deliveries are high-quality technicians who can drop a ball into an area for these guys to cause you a huge amount of problems, as well as the outstanding ability they have to play on the floor. They have the full package."
The contrast with what West Ham can muster at present is stark.