Saturday, 12 May 2007

Just Give Him The Ball!

In a season when lawyers as well as footballers have threatened to influence the Premiership's relegation battle, it is perhaps inevitable that fresh talk of conspiracy should loom over the concluding day of the season. With speculation rife that Wigan Athletic and Sheffield United could manufacture a result when they meet each other tomorrow, Alan Curbishley is unwilling to even concede the possibility of some Machiavellian collusion. "People can get together and have these conspiracy theories but I don't think it has entered anyone's minds because it is so dangerous," said Curbishley. "I don't see any other outcome than everyone trying their hardest."

There is a similar story in The Independent where in five months as West Ham United manager Alan Curbishley has already lived through some of the most outlandish football sub-plots ever to have hit a club. Survival Sunday has many implications for a club with the pariah status of West Ham, noticeably in terms of collusion at Bramall Lane, and there may be every reason to fear the worst. Yet the West Ham manager, observes Sam Wallace, still wears the thousand-yard stare of a man who has lived life on the brink this season but even he would not let that kind of paranoia gnaw away at him. "In the last game of the season there are so many twists and I don't think Sheffield United will forget what happened in 1994 when they played Chelsea and for a lot of the game they were safe, then it got turned around. You can't legislate for what can happen on that day. Wigan know what they have to do and if we pick anything up we have done our job. I don't think anyone can go into it other than flat out to try to get their result."

Ted Warnock yesterday insisted he was thinking of nothing other than getting the win that would guarantee his club's Premiership status. "It [the conspiracy theory] makes good newspaper headlines but I'm just thinking about Sheffield United," he said. "We have to assume West Ham will win at Old Trafford and that we need to win. You've got to think that everything that can go against you will go against you." Paul Jewell believes that the football authorities will be resting a lot easier if West Ham United are relegated from the Barclays Premiership tomorrow. "I think the Premier League would be jumping up and down if that happened," he said. "It would look easier for them, but that’s no concern of mine. The Premier League were in an almost impossible situation to a certain extent, but it’s probably their fault that they got themselves in that. We will get people off the hook if we win and send West Ham down, but if we go down it will be because we deserved it. The West Ham scenario is getting tiresome – the ‘Gang of Four’? I’m just waiting for Chairman Mao to join them now! – and we can’t use it as an excuse because it’s not a valid one."

David Lacey has written an article in which he states the officers of the Premier League might be forgiven a sigh of relief should the Hammers be relegated tomorrow. The season is ending under extreme protest; to the usual cheers and jeers has been added the sound of axes grinding. Lacey argues the league has, in effect, told the protesters to get lost and, now that Fulham are safe and Charlton are down, some of the momentum will have been taken out of the argument. Yet if Wigan or Sheffield United are relegated tomorrow the rancour will surely continue.

Sir Alex Ferguson joked that he had received a good-luck text message from the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, who he suspects may be secretly hoping that West Ham do get relegated. "We will get people off the hook if we win and send West Ham down," he said. To that end there will be no favours handed out at Old Trafford even if Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney may again be left out of the starting lineup in readiness for next Saturday’s showdown with Chelsea at Wembley. "It’s a difficult game for us, against a team at the bottom of the league fighting for survival, and, while one or two players won’t play, in the main it will be a strong team I put out," Ferguson said. "We will do that to represent ourselves in a proper way and to be fair to everyone. I think that everyone knows the English game is 100 per cent honest and people do their best. That is what we will do on Sunday. Alan Curbishley is a very good friend of mine, but he understands I have to respect the issues of the other managers as well. They [Wigan and Sheffield United] deserve our best attention to the game and I will be picking a team to win."

As if any extra motivation was needed, a piece in The Times says the lessons of history point to a hard time for the Hammers. It states Alex Ferguson has not forgotten the 1-0 defeat at Upton Park this season, in Curbishley’s first match in charge, and most probably, the three occasions in the 1990s when West Ham shot down his side’s title ambitions. West Ham played out of their skins to force a draw with United in 1995, when Blackburn Rovers were presented with the title even though they lost away to Liverpool. Oliver Brown, in a piece in The Telegraph, notes West Ham face a game of inverted incentives to complete their astonishing Premiership turnaround. He asks us to cast our minds back 15 years - to another anxious run-in, and to another momentous engagement with Manchester United. Then, the club were already relegated, but contrived a remarkable 1-0 win that effectively ended United's title ambitions. Sir Alex Ferguson bemoaned his opponents' "obscene" amount of effort. Now, with Old Trafford ready for a champions' jamboree tomorrow, West Ham have to show the same pride and perseverance in the service of a far greater cause - even if the result threatens to be even more unpopular.

The same article suggests West Ham are relishing their role as quiet assassins in the relegation duel. Players have been gagged following this season's surfeit of adverse publicity, while Curbishley has resolved to brave the barbs in his typically deadpan style. "We have been coming up quietly on the rails," he said. "Everybody has had their say, and it's becoming louder and louder in some respects. We are keeping quiet." Come tomorrow, the dark recesses into which West Ham have retreated of late could also be illuminated. The club would at last envisage a future that stretches further than the next game, with Curbishley expected to receive chairman Eggert Magnusson's backing for a major overhaul of the squad. But in the short term he stuck to the diplomatic line, denying that players would essentially be fighting for their careers against United.

The Guardian offers a spotters guide to relegation and cheerfully describes the scene if West Ham are on the verge of going down. "Close-up of really tired-looking Alan Curbishley standing with arms folded and slowly shaking his head. Home crowd spending a lot of time shouting, "Ole!" and offering extended rounds of applause to substituted star players. Shot of tearful Anton Ferdinand walking backwards and pointing sulkily at fellow defenders. Commentator says, "sadness for some inside Old Trafford," over pictures of furious, tattooed skinhead contingent chanting about not being fit to wear the shirt.

Les Ferdinand relives the agony of final-day defeat when the 2-2 draw with Birmingham City in 2003 was not quite enough.
I'd only been at West Ham for five months or so going into that final game and the rot had arguably set in a long time before that. But the reason I went there in the first place was because I genuinely believed we'd stay in the Premiership. I hoped to play my part in achieving that. That failure was the worst feeling in the world. There were times that season when, for whatever reason, we didn't have the fight or hunger we should have had. Maybe it was the tension. It was make or break, do or die, but some sides are tougher than others and can cope better. When you're losing every week, you concede and think: 'Here we go again.' Heads go down, shoulders drop and it's hard to get out of that rut.

Our biggest problem was that it was out of our hands on the final afternoon. Mathematically we still had a chance but that just makes it crueller. We had to win at Birmingham and hope Bolton failed to beat Middlesbrough at the Reebok. Bolton went two up really quickly and the Birmingham fans were chanting: 'Going down, going down, going down.' There was no big screen giving the scores but it filtered through to the players. That hits you and we were just treading water. We knew that it was hopeless and whatever we did wasn't going to be enough. I scored, we led, then ended up drawing 2-2. It just felt as if we were doomed from the off.

Henry Winter, in his column in The Telegraph, prays that natural justice will prevail this weekend; that is the points deduction West Ham deserve for the lies told over the Tevez deal will effectively be inflicted by Manchester United while Wigan prevail at Bramall Lane. He laments that the last weekend of the season, when the Grinning Reaper called relegation stalks benighted clubs, a maths degree is traditionally required to juggle all the permutations but tomorrow, when Wigan Athletic, Sheffield United, and Carlos Tevez's West Ham United fight for survival, a law degree is needed.

Also in The Telegraph, there is a detailed look at the three players that could decide which clubs avoid the drop from the top flight. Unsurprisingly, West Ham's nominated player is Tevez, a player that represents the team's main inspiration as an infectious source of pure heart and quality. Whatever the ramifications that may still ensue, you have to give this gutsy character tremendous credit for the way he has applied himself on the pitch in a strange country amid such controversy. "Just give him the ball!" That'll be the message from the bench tomorrow.

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