Friday, 10 August 2007

Season Preview- Guardian

Hammers fans may welcome a season that will probably end with the club in mid-table
By Tom Lutz

Prediction: 9th
Odds: 1250-1

If there's one thing that West Ham do well, it's seeing out the season with a bang. In the last four years, their final games have consisted of three finals (two play-offs and an FA Cup) and an escape from relegation. After a campaign last year pregnant with player discontent, biscuit-driven takeovers and the Carlos Tevez saga, Hammers fans may welcome a season that will probably end with the club grounding on the gentle shallows of mid-table.

True, in their first full season without Terry Brown in charge, West Ham finally look like they may be turning into a buying rather than a selling club, with over £20m invested in the likes of Scott Parker, Julien Faubert, Craig Bellamy and Freddie Ljungberg. But to balance that out, they've lost Nigel Reo-Coker (admittedly his contribution to dressing-room harmony won't be too sorely missed), as well as the creativity of Yossi Benayoun and Carlos Tevez.

What may be more crucial than any of the players that have moved in or out of Upton Park though, are those returning from injury. Matthew Upson played so rarely after his arrival from Birmingham in January that his return can almost be treated as a new signing. Upson will not be able to sail straight back into the team though. James Collins and Anton Ferdinand established a solid central-defensive partnership towards the end of last season and West Ham's player of the year in 2005/06, Danny Gabbidon, has also come back from injury to provide competition for places.

But it is Dean Ashton's recovery from the ankle injury that kept him out of the whole of last season that is the biggest boost for West Ham. His link-up play, aerial prowess and goalscoring ability should gel well with Bellamy's speed and flair. Bobby Zamora managed 11 goals in a struggling team last season, and should provide decent back-up, but Carlton Cole is still to score more than five goals in a season and Alan Curbishley should bring in another striker.

Another area that Curbishley might want to keep an eye on is youth development. While Anton Ferdinand is established in the first team and Hogan Ephraim and James Tomkins look like decent prospects, it's been a while since the academy produced a Carrick, Lampard or Joe Cole. Mark Noble is probably the closest to emulating those names, after finally fulfilling his promise last year. He can use both feet, is a snappy tackler and can even score the odd decent goal.

Eggert Magnusson has said he intends to invest in youth development, but one of his biggest concerns before the season starts is how the Tevez affair has affected the club's reputation. "It does hurt me because the club has been dragged into this in a negative way by some of my colleagues," he says. "West Ham has been dragged down and I don't think this is correct." Magnusson is right, of course, there's no doubt that West Ham have been tarnished over the last few months, but that may be no bad thing. Maybe they can use this as an opportunity to ditch their image of affable also-rans and develop a siege mentality. With the likes of Lee Bowyer, Bellamy and Lucas Neill in the squad, they're certainly nasty enough.

Curbishley will be the man responsible for developing that mentality - whether he is nasty enough is debatable - and certainly a them-and-us mindset could be the difference between a side that ambles along and one that challenges for Europe. Although Curbishley deserves credit for keeping West Ham up, his first season was far from perfect. It was far too long before he finally trusted Tevez, the player who effectively kept the Hammers up, and his safety-first approach doesn't fit in with the flowing football of West Ham's traditions.

So it looks like being a season of consolidation for West Ham then, maybe not as thrilling as recent times, but it beats the hell out of the intricacies of football contract law.

Ins: Scott Parker (Newcastle - £7m); Craig Bellamy (Liverpool - £7.5m); Fredrik Ljungberg (West Ham - £3m); Julien Faubert (Bordeaux - 6.7m); Richard Wright (Everton - free).

Outs: Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool - £5m); Paul Konchesky (Fulham - £2m); Marlon Harewood (Aston Villa - £3m); Nigel Reo-Coker (Aston Villa - £7.5m); Tyrone Mears (Derby - £1m); Shaun Newton (Leicester - free); Roy Carroll (Rangers - free); Teddy Sheringham (Colchester - free).

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