Saturday, 29 September 2007

Storming Back

Dean Ashton is the subject of the Guardian's 'Big Interview' today.

Ashton Storms back with sights on a better break
By Stuart James

With tears streaming down his cheeks and pain coursing through his broken right ankle, Dean Ashton recalls contemplating his footballing future. Having forced his way into the England set-up for the first time, the West Ham striker was set to make his international debut against Greece the next day until an innocuous challenge with Shaun Wright-Phillips in training changed everything. There was "a big crack" before frenzied emotion took over.

"I was crying uncontrollably once I was off the pitch and into the dressing rooms because I knew it was long-term," said Ashton. "The crying comes from the shock - I couldn't control it at all. Your instant thoughts are: 'I've missed the chance to play for England.' The pinnacle of your career. You know you are going to be out for a long time. 'Am I ever going to play again?' All these things go through your mind at the same time. It wasn't very nice."

That was 13 months ago but Ashton is back, fitter, stronger and free-scoring. Three goals in as many games underline the 23-year-old's claim that he is in "the best shape ever", each restorative appearance edging him nearer to the England call-up that would help to erase the memories, if not the scars, from August last year. Steve McClaren has not been in touch yet but the forward's name is expected to appear in Friday's squad for the upcoming Euro 2008 qualifiers.

Ashton admits there have been frustrating moments when he has thought "I could have had 10 caps", but otherwise his mindset remains positive. "I think there are always places up for grabs in the England squad if you believe it," said the striker, who will lead West Ham's attack at Arsenal today. "I believe I can be as good as any striker that is in the England squad and, therefore, I feel that I am good enough to play well enough to eventually deserve a place."

His current run of form puts him ahead of Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent, who all seem to spend more time on the substitutes' bench than the pitch these days, while Andrew Johnson's goal drought, together with injuries to Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, have pushed wide open a door that was slightly ajar. That certainly did not appear to be the case when Ashton watched England, and Heskey in particular, impress against Israel and Russia.

"It's difficult because [Heskey] doing well perhaps makes it seem like a player like me could be used in the squad but, at the same time, I don't think you would be human if you thought, 'Oh fantastic, he's doing brilliantly, there goes my chance'. But it doesn't really matter how [Heskey] does, it's down to me. I feel I've got different attributes but he's earned the right to be in the squad and he's played well when he's been in there so I've got to play better to get above him."

His rehabilitation work should help. Alan Pardew, West Ham's former manager, was talking up Ashton's physical condition before he broke down with England but the former Norwich striker insists he has made huge strides since then under the influence of John Green, the physiotherapist who has worked closely with Owen. Indeed Ashton is so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from Green that he describes his injury as "a blessing" at one point.

"When Alan Pardew said about me being a 'meaner machine', that was me doing my own regime in the summer and coming back losing a bit of weight," he explained. "Whereas this time someone has been telling me what they think is best for me. I feel like I am a hell of a lot stronger but quicker at the same time, so I feel like I have really made the best use of my physique. I like to think that I now try to transfer the power that I've got into speed as well.

"It's about how you use weight to your advantage. An example is people looked at [the rugby union player] Jonah Lomu and you wouldn't have said, 'God, he's fat'. He was absolutely rapid but he's a huge guy and that's what I like to look at. People have said about me, 'Perhaps he's a bit too heavy or too slow'. But I think if they actually took the time out and came and watched me, face to face, they would realise that I'm not actually fat and I'm not that slow."

He is also not tired, which is a little surprising given that Ethan, Ashton's first child, was born at the end of last month. Ashton claims being a dad is "the best feeling in the world", a phrase that many West Ham fans are likely to have applied to securing their Premier League place on the final day of last season. The campaign was a testing time for everyone at Upton Park, Ashton's patience stretched more than most as he watched, helpless, from the sidelines.

"Obviously you don't want to see your team-mates struggling and getting caned in the press but, at the same time, there was nothing I could do except encourage. Being injured is hard enough but the thought of your team getting relegated after I had worked so hard to get out of that league was difficult. I was really made up for everybody that we stayed in the Premier League. Not only was it fantastic for the club but they did me a favour at the same time."

Ashton admits Euro 2008 is something "I'd love to be part of" although for the moment his mind is focused on the Emirates Stadium, where he believes West Ham can be "more than a match" for Arsenal. Another good performance and the memory of watching the England's game against Greece from his hospital bed might be forgotten. "It was one of those nights when there were plenty of chances and I just remember thinking, 'I wish I was playing'." He surely will be soon.

The Shaman Of Our Football

His Grace Arsene, the shaman of our football- The superlative Arsene Wenger has scarily made Arsenal even better post Thierry Henry
By Russell Brand

Six or seven games in we are able to ascertain the flavour of the season, we have savoured the first giddy sips and can now assess whether this shall be a vintage year. It'll be some time till we rinse away the spectacular taste of that swoonsome, dark rascal Jose Mourinho, probably we'll dispatch into the spittoon far sooner the bitter tang of Martin Jol, the poor sod, like a cuckolded father putting a brave face on for his bewildered kids, while Daniel Levy capers around Europe in a push-up bra with his knickers showing.

Fernando Torres is reckoned to be the new Ian Rush by Steven Gerrard and the arrival of the cartoonishly pretty Spaniard does seem significant. His input could ensure a realistic challenge from Merseyside for the first time in a decade-and-a-half and who but the blue faction of that city would begrudge them?

There is much to ponder in this richly evolving drama but my attention is drawn currently to Arsène Wenger, whose beautiful, more "royal" than ever, Arsenal visit Upton Park tomorrow. Last season West Ham bested the Gunners twice, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated as Arsenal appear to have several teams playing with a grace, confidence and joy that is almost transcendental.

Given the concern that many expressed pre-season about post-Henry Arsenal this is a surprising and exciting development and one that can only really be attributed to Wenger, who to me seems to be vibrating above the frequency typically associated with our national game. I consider him a mystic, a shaman, an alchemist, speaking from somewhere far behind his inky eyes, issuing spiritual sermons on the game's decline and our obligation to nurture English talent.

"English football's responsibility is to continue raising quality without losing its soul," he says, talking of foreign money and bare terraces as potential symbols of an atheistic erosion of our holy essence. Ten years ago Wenger came over here, taking our jobs, recruited a clutch of Gallics and Latinos and picked up the double with the insouciance of a gent collecting a baguette and an espresso. The debate continues to this day as to whether the influx of foreign talent has harmed our national team; I feel that if the game is elevated and standards raised that will ultimately be positive across all strata and few would dispute the contribution made by "the professor" unless they are actual racists or Spurs fans.

Now that Wenger has expressed concern about the development of young English players it does seem more serious. But aside from his new ecclesiastical role he has no duty to anyone other than the fans and board of Arsenal and that doesn't run to positive discrimination in favour of Anglo Saxons.

He spoke of fans as "the keepers of the game" which is a further nod to the civic, if not sacred nature of the sport, which makes me query the new directive to referees to regard with renewed positivity "hard to call" offside decisions, the reasoning being that "a dodgy goal is preferable to a dodgy offside". Is that an edict with which most fans would concur? Obviously that would be contingent on whether it was scored or conceded.

For me the relative scarcity of goals, perhaps the factor that has prevented football enchanting America, enhances their sanctity. Gary Lineker and his sexy, brown legs would never put the ball in the net in a pre-match kick-about so as not to tarnish the magic of that rarely achieved objective and in midweek I saw, in a match against Real Zaragoza, that paragon of the footballer as divine, Thierry Henry, on sighting a raised flag, curtail his magisterial canter towards goal with the despondence of a man abruptly woken from a beautiful dream.

It was as if, in that moment, meaning itself had been suspended, the ball with trickling inertia departed from its master, who himself was left to wonder, when would come his first goal in La Liga. Amidst the swirl of the scandals the rumours, the ignoble chatter and limitless tainted money something chaste and sacred remains and it belongs to us, the fans and cannot be bought, sold or branded. Wenger is aware of this, which is why one can over look the paucity of Englishmen in his side; he could field a team of ravens and be closer to the games essence than most, and I hope, for West Ham's sake, that tomorrow he does.

Guardian column

Friday, 28 September 2007

Healthy Respect

The Hammers have won the last two matches at Upton Park, against Middlesbrough in the Premier League and Plymouth in the Carling Cup, while Arsenal are looking for their fifth straight win to keep their two point lead at the top of the table. The Gunners are unbeaten in 17 matches in all competitions, since they lost to West Ham at the Emirates in April. Alan Curbishley is gearing up for the clash buoyed by the fact the Irons did the double over Arsenal last season, but also in the belief that Arsene Wenger's side are a very different prospect this campaign.

"There were so many games where they did great but missed chances," he said. "This year they look a lot more direct. They have changed things around, not so much in the way they attack getting into the box, but they have been more forceful in front of goal. Perhaps they have looked at some criticisms of them and done more about it. They've got a different make up to their team. The average age of the Arsenal side that played against Newcastle in the Carling Cup was about 20 or 21. They're a young team and they're growing together. We've not seen enough of them yet this season to see what their weaknesses are. We'll have to see as the season progresses because it's a long old season. No one here is going into the game thinking (Arsenal) are invincible. What sums up football is what Plymouth did to us on Wednesday. They came and gave us a really good game."

West Ham captain Lucas Neill is playing the innocent when asked if strong-arm tactics, as displayed against Arsenal by his old side Blackburn over the seasons, might be in order to stop the Premier League leaders at Upton Park. Neill was in the Blackburn line-up castigated by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger for kicking his men off the park in the 2005 FA Cup semi-final, but the Hammers skipper insists he has tempered his outlook. "You have to approach it in the right manner and try to play with a tempo," he said. "We have to close them down. If we give them time (on the ball) they will absolutely ruin us. So, yes, we have to be up in their faces. But I'd call it a West Ham working performance. I wouldn't call it the Blackburn way." Neill had the satisfaction of winning for West Ham at the Emirates last season. "We beat them 1-0, although if it had been a boxing match, we'd have had to throw the towel in," he admitted. "We ground it out and stuck together. But you always know against Arsenal you can have them for 89 minutes, then they only need one flash of brilliance from one of any number of their players and that's it."

At least West Ham have the benefit of Arsenal old boy Freddie Ljungberg's knowledge about his old team to help them this time. West Ham boss Alan Curbishley said: "Arsene Wenger didn't want to let Freddie go, but Freddie wanted a new challenge. We've had a chat with him about one or two things, we're aware of some of the things we might try and about what Arsenal like to do. But we need a passionate start and see where it takes us. Players always enjoy taking on their old clubs and Freddie will be no different. Lucas Neill added: "Ljungberg has been giving his team-mates an extra gee-up in training as he is so desperate to beat his former club. Freddie has made sure everyone has been having a good week in training. He’s been useful because he’s been able to tell us about Arsenal’s movement."

Both managers have a healthy respect for the players they will face this weekend. Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas has started the season in blistering form and Curbishley is well aware of the threat he will pose. "Over the last year he's come to the fore for Arsenal and he has become a major force," said the Hammers boss. "For someone so young he shows maturity beyond his years. We're aware of the things he can do."
Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger admits to being a long term fan of Dean Ashton - and he sees no reason why the West Ham striker cannot do a job for England. Steve McClaren has something of a selection poser in attack for the forthcoming Euro 2008 qualifiers against Estonia and Russia, with Michael Owen and Emile Heskey currently sidelined by injury. Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney is now fit following his broken metatarsal and is expected to come straight back into the side, but just who plays alongside him is open to debate. Liverpool frontman Peter Crouch, Andy Johnson, Jermain Defoe, Darren Bent and Ashton - now back among the goals for the Hammers - are all likely to be on McClaren's mind. Ashton, 23, had been set to make his full England debut against Greece in August 2006, only to break an ankle training with the national side and miss the best part of a year.

The powerfully-built striker maintains he is "ready for England" - and Wenger, who takes his table-toppers to West Ham tomorrow, believes it would be on merit. "When he was at Crewe, they played against us in the FA Youth Cup and he was outstanding," he recalled. "I tried to get him here, but they had an agreement with Liverpool. Ashton is an intelligent player and uses his body well and is good in the air. We were looking at the time for someone who could give us something a bit different and help us play slightly more direct if needed, and we felt he could develop into that sort of player. After, he went to Norwich and that was a surprise because suddenly he would not join us." Wenger added: "In my opinion, yes [he can play for England]. Certainly he will be involved now because you have Owen and Heskey out. The problem for Dean Ashton was he was injured for a long time. He showed a lot of character to come back. I would not be surprised to see Steve McClaren in the stand tomorrow."

On the team news front,
Scott Parker has recovered from his knee injury and is in contention for a place in the squad after playing in the Hammers' Carling Cup win over Plymouth in midweek. Craig Bellamy is back in training after his groin injury and Freddie Ljungberg could be up against up against his former club. In fact, with many members of the West Ham United squad returning to full fitness, there are a few selection issues to ponder. "Freddie is fit, Scott Parker too and Craig Bellamy is back in full training so I've got a bit of thinking to do," admitted Curbishley. "Apart from that, Bobby Zamora is out as he has just had a knee injury and we are still without Julien Faubert and Kieron Dyer, who are long terms injuries. Calum Davenport is recovering from his calf injury and Nigel Quashie has been out since the Spurs game with a injured foot but both are back in training." Arsenal midfielder Alexander Hleb faces a late fitness test, while Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), William Gallas (groin), Jens Lehmann (elbow) and Alex Song (calf) are all ruled out.

Last five meetings in the Premier League:

07/04/2007 Arsenal 0 West Ham United 1 (Zamora, 45)
05/11/2007 West Ham United 1 (Harewood, 89) Arsenal 0
01/02/2006 Arsenal 2 (Henry, 45, Pires, 89) West Ham United 3 (Reo-Coker, 25, Zamora, 32, Etherington, 80)
24/09/2005 West Ham United 0 Arsenal 0
21/09/2003 Arsenal 3 (Henry, 14pen, 71, 86) West Ham United 1 (Defoe, 40)

I Smell Garlic

West Ham United and Arsenal have played out many memorable games, especially at Upton Park, where our recent record against the Gunners has been pretty good. Here is a flashback to one of the most eventful clashes of the last few years, from early October 1999. The Hammers were inspired to victory by two goals and a brilliant performance from Paolo Di Canio, but the game was largely overshadowed by the infamous 'spitting' incident that followed an angry confrontation between Neil Ruddock and Patrick Vieira.

Di Canio dons a two-goal disguise
By Martin Thorpe

West Ham United 2 Arsenal 1 (October 02, 1999)

A cursory analysis of this game will paint two-goal Paolo Di Canio as the hero of West Ham's victory while Arsenal's Patrick Vieira, sent off and facing allegations of spitting, will be cast as the bad guy. If only life were that simple.

Di Canio, not for the first time, was also a villain. And let us not forget either the man in black. Mike Reid fell for two apparent dives by Di Canio which resulted in Vieira receiving the fourth red card of his Arsenal career. He also missed a handball in the build-up to West Ham's first goal, yet managed to spot enough other offences to see Marc Vivien Foe sent off in injury-time for a second caution and 10 yellow cards issued in total.

As for Vieira, having picked up his fifth yellow card and first sending-off this season, he now faces the possibility of further punishment after allegedly spitting in the face of West Ham's Neil Ruddock following his red card.

"He is the lowest of the low," Ruddock said of the Frenchman afterwards. "I like him as a player but not as a man. He deserves a long ban." One can only hope the fourth official or video replay also picked up the pious Ruddock's body-charge into the angry Frenchman seconds earlier.

The after-match verbal confrontation continued to reflect the bad feeling of the game itself when the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said of West Ham's Italian striker: "It was cheating by Di Canio. He had a great game but I was very frustrated by his behaviour. He dived for Vieira's first yellow card and again for the sending-off, so Patrick was very upset."

And to think that the game was billed as the first Premiership meeting between two old friends, Davor Suker and Igor Stimac. However, the more minutes that ticked by, the greater the animosity grew between two teams at different points on the aspirational scale.

So what about the football? Arsenal began in control of the game, with Suker and Dennis Bergkamp going close. West Ham were restricted to long shots until the half-hour, when they went ahead.

A great run by Di Canio past about five challenges ended with the ball squirting out to Trevor Sinclair on the right of the area. As David Seaman, back from injury, blocked the threat, the ball ballooned up and Sinclair appeared to control it with his outstretched hand. The ensuing cross was half-hit by Paulo Wanchope and Di Canio stabbed it home.

Arsenal threw away their early caution and went for the equaliser, playing three forwards for much of the second half. Three times Suker went close and so did Bergkamp before having a "goal" disallowed for a debatable offside.

West Ham were working hard to minimise the threat posed by the north Londoners while waiting for the chance to attack on the break. Sinclair shot wastefully wide on one such occasion, then Silvinho's saving tackle denied Di Canio.

But on 72 minutes the Italian produced another piece of magic to extend West Ham's lead, lifting the ball past Martin Keown with his left foot and firing majestically past Seaman with his right.

Four minutes later Arsenal pulled a goal back when Steve Lomas's marshmallow defensive header fell straight to Suker, who this time found the net. But, although the visitors piled forward in ever greater numbers, it was West Ham who went closest to scoring again, Di Canio outwitting Tony Adams and firing in a shot which Seaman turned brilliantly over the bar.

West Ham United: Shaka Hislop- Steve Potts, Neil Ruddock, Igor Stimac- Steve Lomas, Trevor Sinclair, Marc Vivien Foe, John Moncur (Javier Margas 87), Frank Lampard- Paolo Di Canio, Paulo Wanchope (Paul Kitson 80)

Unused: Craig Forrest, Marc Keller, Michael Carrick

New Challenges

Sir Trevor Brooking believes Dean Ashton is ready to solve England's striking problems for the crucial Euro qualifiers. Steve McClaren faces a major selection dilemma for the games against Estonia and Russia after Emile Heskey and Michael Owen were ruled out of the must-win clashes on October 13th and 17th. The FA's Director of Football Development has today warned the striker to make sure he is ready if England come calling.

West Ham’s uncapped striker, 23, missed all last season through injury after suffering a broken ankle on the eve of his first cap against Greece in August 2006. He has finally regained full fitness and many believe could be in the squad to face Estonia and Russia next month after netting three goals in three games. Brooking sees no reason why Ashton cannot reproduce the form which made him one of the hottest properties in the English game. "Dean has been out for over a year," he said. "We all know he has ability. He has just to work on that match fitness, do it consistently and get that sharpness back to get the spring and the confidence. You have to be sure Dean is fully fit and raring to go."

Hammers legend Brooking is convinced the injuries to Owen and Heskey could open the door for Ashton to gain his first full England cap. "There is going to be a lot of debate about who should play and who should not for England next time," he stated. "England manager Steve McClaren, though, is the one to say who should be in - and I am sure you will have about eight different strikers put forward. Probably last time, Emile was not high on many people’s suggested list, but Steve came up with him and showed a lot of courage. The disappointment of somebody means an opportunity for somebody else. Hopefully any player picked will respond if they are given the chance. Everyone is aware when you go into the England side you have to perform."

A West Ham player will less lofty immediate ambitions is Scott Parker. The midfielder enjoyed his first appearance for the Hammers at Upton Park on Wednesday night as the team progressed through to the fourth round of the Carling Cup with a 1-0 win over Plymouth. "I'm pleased to be back after being out a long time with my knee," he said. "It was nice to be involved and get a win; that was the most crucial thing. It was always going to be a tough, competitive match, playing against lower league opposition. You've got nothing to gain, as such. You're expected to win and they come and give everything they've got. It turned out that way and a late strike from Deano put us through, which was pleasing."

Speaking about his own progress since recovering from the knee injury he suffered during the Hammers' pre-season friendly against Lazio in Austria, Parker said: "I'm feeling alright. I'm probably still a little bit away from where I want to be but you only get that from playing games. You can train as much as you can but I think the main thing coming out of last night was coming through the game without any reaction to my knee. That was the most pleasing thing. Hopefully now I can push on a bit, gain a bit more confidence in my knee and the way I play and we'll go from there."

Parker remains hopeful of being involved in tomorrow's game against league leaders, Arsenal. "I haven't spoken to the manager yet," he admitted. "I think I'll probably be involved in one way or another, but I don't know whether I'll play or whether I'll be on the bench. I'll leave that decision to the manager. Obviously, Saturday's game comes quite quickly but it's down to the manager. Whenever you play Arsenal it's always a tough game and Saturday certainly won't be any different. They're on fire and it's going to be a tough but we're in good form ourselves and we'd like to put up a good show. Hopefully we'll get a result."

Freddie Ljungberg is another player looking forward to the visit of Arsenal. He faces the Gunners for the first time since quitting them to join West Ham - and believes his former side have recaptured some of the belief they had during his glorious nine years at the club. "When I had success with Arsenal they played with great belief and confidence - and you can see that with this team," said the 30-year-old, who hopes to start after fighting his way back from injury. "There was a great team spirit throughout the club and respect for the manager. They have some brilliant young players who play together and for each other. It will feel a little strange when I play against Arsenal but I'm with a new team now and I have a new challenge."

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Pilates And Preparation

With West Ham United's recent injuries, new head of physiotherapy George Cooper has been a busy man. In a detailed interview in tonight's Citizen, he explains how the physio's role has changed since the days of the 'magic sponge', and gives the latest on the recovery of Julien Faubert...

The image of footballers as sporting hard men might have softened somewhat since the 1970s and 80s, but nevertheless the concept of West Ham's tough, 6ft-something stars lining up eagerly for their Pilates session comes as a bit of a surprise. "Pilates is a massive thing we do here," explains Cooper. "It's optional but the majority of the players do it. We screen them and see who needs what and if they're a good candidate for it. I've easily got a third of them up to speed where they just do it on their own."

Cooper joined the club in the summer from Charlton and is a trained Pilates instructor. He says the exercise programme, which helps build core stability through stretching and muscle control, is a big part of injury prevention at the club. "It used to be the old bucket and sponge and a spray and get on with it," he said of the physio's role. "There's a lot more science behind it now and physiotherapists are encouraged to sports science as well. Basically now if you can prevent injuries, that's what you want to do. Obviously there are some injuries - like Kieron Dyer fracturing his leg - that you can't do anything about and then we repair as well."

Cooper who describes himself as a "failed footballer" after a stint at Chelsea as a schoolboy, is head of a medical team of four, including two other physios and two masseurs, who also work closely with club's two sports scientists. It is their job to maintain players fitness and nurse them back to health when something goes wrong. While newspaper reports often obsess about scans used to ascertain the seriousness of an injury, Cooper said Scott Parker's recent knee problem perfectly demonstrates the way things are really done. "Scans that are done within 48 hours often cloud the issue," he said. "You have to wait for the knee to settle down and the bleeding to stop, so scans are only used really in conjunction with what you find clinically. Within those two or three days you'll already have a very good idea of what the problem is. Then you'll go into the scanner to confirm what you've found. After that, depending on the problem, you put a protocol together and the whole team sits down, this is what you can massage, this is what you can't, this is what you can work on, this is what you can't'. It's different for every single injury. If you had a cruciate ligament for one player, his protocol would be different to the others."

He added: "Every one of us would have worked on a player that's out for more more than a week and we'd have got them back together. Parker played the other day and it's taken a lot of work. I take a lot of pride in the team here." Cooper started his career at Arsenal's academy in 1997 while in the third year of his physiotherapy degree. He went on to work at Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and most recently Charlton, completing a Masters in sports science along the way. His ambition was always to work at a top London club and he said: "I consider West Ham a very top London club."

But it's not just the kudos and the medicine that made him work for a career in professional football. Players gravitate to the physio's room as the place where the banter happens. "We've had some fantastic times in the physio rooms, real hilarious stories," he said. "I couldn't tell you most of them. But discussions about an issue with Big Brother or which popstar is better than that one, religion or anything like that get heated and it just rolls and rolls and in the end it gets personal. It's just funny though. None of it is nasty. Everyone brings up good points and as people walk in they join in the argument and there's a big a divide in the room and it's great. There's a topic of the day and bang they're off. West Ham is like a home from home and it's exactly that which made me want to stay in football."

The first time George Cooper ran on to the pitch for West Ham, was the day Julien Faubert ruptured his achilles. "It was a big blow," said Cooper. "He played about 18 minutes in a friendly and that was it. But he looked fantastic in that 18 minutes."

Faubert, who pulled up in a summer friendly against Czech side Sigma Olomouc, is currently completing the first stage of his rehabilitation at a centre in the south of France. "He'd just moved to the club so he didn't speak a great deal of English. He had a surgeon in France that had worked on his thigh before and he'd done rehab there before, so we sent him back," explained Cooper. "We've kept in constant contact and he's flown back two or three times to watch games. When he's ready he'll come back here. We'll assess him every morning and see what level of function he has and he'll go out with the sports scientists. Then we'll assess him again, and again the next morning until he's fully fit." Cooper added: "It was only the third time I'd seen a ruptured achilles. I heard it snap and he was sitting there without any distress and I thought, don't be so melodramatic, it can't be a rupture, but it was."

Reflections On Plymouth

Following victories over both Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle, Alan Curbishley is desperately hoping that Saturday's fourth round draw can bring yet more Carling Cup cheer to Upton Park. While some of his Premier League counterparts may not have the competition chalked down as 'Top Priority', it is certainly a tournament that the Hammers' boss is approaching with an air of deadly seriousness. A Premiership side will win the Carling Cup so we've got to give it our best shot," insisted Curbishley after seeing Dean Ashton's venomous 92nd-minute volley eliminate the Pilgrims at Upton Park.

Curbishley continued: "Certainly, we've shown our intentions by putting out strong sides against both Bristol Rovers and against Plymouth. We had five or six players who needed a game but, no matter how much you train, it's still not the same as playing an actual match and it got tough out there. It was always going to be a difficult cup tie - just as Manchester United and Aston Villa have found out against Coventry City and Leicester City - and I was trying to tell everyone beforehand that Plymouth would make it a very awkward match for us. Scott Parker hasn't played for eight weeks and he had to feel his way into the tie but that's three games under his belt now and we need him back. I also wanted to give the likes of Richard Wright, Freddie Ljungberg, Luis Boa Morte, Danny Gabbidon and James Collins a game but, in all fairness, even though I made six changes, it was still a strong side and a strong bench, too. I had no doubts about the team that I picked because I knew it was good enough to win the game but Plymouth came here with other ideas! They made the first-half really difficult for us and they showed that they're a very well organised and settled side. They'll be going home feeling really upset that they lost it in the last minute but that's cup football."

Although there was strong competition for places in most areas of the park, it appears Curbishley had little option but to play Ashton who may otherwise have been rested. "After playing up at Newcastle United on Sunday, I asked Dean Ashton about facing Plymouth and he said that he wanted to play," revealed Curbishley. "Bobby Zamora has had an operation to wash out his knee and it'll take about three or four weeks until he's ready, while Henri Camara was cup-tied and I just couldn't risk Craig Bellamy ahead of the Arsenal game even though he was itching to play. I went with Deano and Carlton Cole again. I think that we all talk too much about playing three games in a week because I reckon that some of that's in the mind and, anyway, if the game had gone to extra-time then we would've just got on with that, too. All along, though, I could see that Deano was getting stronger and stronger as the tie wore on and I was hoping that, if we did get a chance in normal time, it would fall to him, because I knew that there was a good chance that he'd finish it. I was also pleased for our substitute Kyel Reid who came on and supplied the cross for Deano to produce such a great volley. We haven't put any pressure on Dean Ashton and, although we've been criticised in some quarters for the way we've taken our time in using him so far, we just had to get it right. The work that he put in before pre-season has seen him get through the summer and thanks to that effort, he's now being repaid in both games and goals."

Curbishley refused to be drawn on any talk of an international call-up for his in-form striker. "I'm not even thinking about him going off with England. I'm just happy that Dean Ashton's playing for West Ham United and, hopefully, we can now get him and Craig Bellamy playing together, starting against Arsenal at the weekend." Certainly, Saturday is a key date for the Hammers as they discover their Carling Cup fourth round opponents, ahead of that testing derby against the Premier League pace-setters. "We're hoping for a decent draw and if we can also get through the next round, then, who knows what could happen from there?" concluded the West Ham manager before heading off to plot how he can shoot down Arsene Wenger's high-flying Gunners. "I've got a bit of thinking to do about the side to face Arsenal because we were very disappointed with the result at Newcastle. The defending up at St James's Park was poor and I let them know all about that on Sunday and Monday. Arsenal have got a fantastic squad and they've made a great start to the season, too, so it's going to be a 'proper' match. There will be a fantastic atmosphere at Upton Park and I'm sure that everyone is looking forward to it. Arsene Wenger will come and play their game, so let's just wait and see what happens."

One player whose performance may have gone largely unnoticed last night is Richard Wright. The former Arsenal and Ipswich stopper made his home debut last night and was pleased to keep a clean sheet. "It was nice to play at Upton Park," he said. "It's been a long time since the start of the season and I'm glad that it's come around now. I kept a clean sheet and we got a win in the Cup as well. You know it's always going to be difficult when you're playing lower league teams. They came and shut up shop, they put us under a bit of pressure as well. It was a bit of a relief for everyone, once we scored the goal at the end, to make sure we went through. It was a great goal. Reidy came off the bench and did really well and put in a great cross. Deano finished it really well and we're pleased we kept clean sheet as well. Hopefully we can build on that and take that into the Premier League as well." The 28-year-old is looking forward to Saturday's fourth round draw, regardless of who the Hammers are paired against. "At this stage of the competition all the better teams are still in there," he said. "If we want to progress in this tournament it doesn't matter who we play we have to go out with the same attitude and if we have to grind out a result against a lower league team or get a result against a top team then that will hopefully be the case."

Teams in the draw for the fourth round of the Carling Cup: Arsenal; Blackburn Rovers; Blackpool; Bolton Wanderers; Cardiff City; Chelsea; Coventry City; Everton; Leicester City; Liverpool; Luton Town; Manchester City; Portsmouth; Sheffield United; Tottenham Hotspur; West Ham United

Sealing A Deal For Foquinha?

West Ham United are interested in Brazilian teenager Kerlon Moura Souza according to various reports this morning. The Mirror claims the 19-year-old, who currently stars for Cruzeiro, wants to come to Europe and Torino, Real Betis and Espanyol are all said to be keeping tabs on the £5million rated striker. The Hammers hope the South America connections that brought Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano to Upton Park will put them in pole position. The Mail states that the Hammers believe they have beaten Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to the punch for the teen sensation and have not been put off South American signings after the debacle surrounding the deals which bought the Argentinians to the east End at the start of last season.

Kerlon, of course, is no longer one of Brazil's best kept secrets. Thanks to the blanket coverage of the World Youth Championships, his championing by several respected columnists and the proliferation of footage on YouTube, the boy nicknamed Foquinha (Little Seal) for his ability to dribble the ball on his forehead has become a much discussed name among the footballing fraternity.

West Ham United 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Ashton Breaks The Deadlock by Andy Martin
Dean Ashton's stoppage-time winner sent West Ham into the fourth round of the Carling Cup at the expense of Plymouth. The match looked to be heading into extra time as the Championship side held out for 91 minutes in the face of almost constant pressure... Guardian
Ashton Stunner Sinks Argyle by Nick Szczepanik
Dean Ashton produced a spectacular volleyed goal in injury time at Upton Park last night to send West Ham United into the fourth round of the League Cup for the first time in seven seasons. So often the victims of clubs from lower divisions in knockout competitions... Times
Dean Ashton Applies Killer Touch For West Ham by Stewart Jackson
Dean Ashton scored in stoppage time to save West Ham's blushes last night, a right-footed strike claiming victory and his third goal in as many games. Alan Curbishley was true to his word and fielded a strong side — he spoke this week of the Carling Cup being a viable route back into European football... Telegraph
Ashton Stunner nicks It late On by Ian Gibb
Dean Ashton's stunning shot in the second minute of injury time gave West Ham victory and brought relief to Upton Park. The striker, who has made it clear he hopes to be part of England's plans for their Euro 2008 games next month, latched on to a long cross from substitute Kyal Reid and swept his drive into the corner of the net from outside the penalty area... Mail

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Halting The Pilgrims' Progress

Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions than ruined by too confident a security.
John Bunyan

Alan Curbishley is looking ahead to tonight's tie against Plymouth and is sticking by his early season pledge to take the Carling Cup as seriously as possible. The West Ham manager sent out an experienced side in the previous round, which saw Bristol Rovers beaten 2-1 thanks to two Craig Bellamy strikes. Although the loss of Kieron Dyer to a broken leg that night meant victory came at a high cost, Curbishley made it clear he would continue to use a majority of first-choice players in a competition he believes his side can win.

"I did say after the Bristol Rovers game how disappointed I was after what happened to Kieron but we are in these competitions and we have got to attack them," said Curbishley. "Every now and then a team from outside the top four gets to the final so if you are a team like that then that is what you should be looking to do. We have injuries here but we have got enough to attack it." Although eager for the Hammers to continue to progress in the Carling Cup, Curbishley is anticipating a tricky tie against the Pilgrims at Upton Park. "I know Ian quite well. He is someone who can lift a club when he goes in there. He did a terrific job at QPR and Plymouth have the opportunity to be a big club with their fan base. They always threaten to get in and around those play-off places and I'm sure that will be their aim this season. Plymouth are a steady side and they will bring a lot of fans so the atmosphere should be good. It's game on for us. Plymouth can come and enjoy it somewhat but we have had them watched and we know we will have a game on our hands."

On turning his thoughts to team selection, Curbishley stated: "Our new signings Nobby Solano and Henri Camara are cup-tied but we're hoping Scott Parker will be back. With Craig Bellamy, we have to see. He wants to give it a go but we'll have to see if we decide to risk it tomorrow or wait for Arsenal." The Hammers are acutely aware there will be little respite before the Premier League leaders visit on Saturday. "If Craig doesn't make it we have only two recognised senior strikers. We could bring in youngsters if we wanted to but I can also play Freddie Ljungberg or Luis Boa Morte up there. We can cope."

When questioned about another absentee striker, Curbishley admitted there is growing concern over Bobby Zamora's lingering knee injury. It still remains unclear when the former Spurs front-man will be able to resume a season that was put on hold following the 2-1 victory at Bristol Rovers in the previous round at the end of August. "We started the season with Zamora and Bellamy and on Sunday it was Ashton and Carlton Cole. It's just the way things go," said Curbishley. "Since the Bristol Rovers game Bobby's knee keeps swelling up. It's not the same problem he was struggling with last season but we have tried one or two things and it hasn't quite happened so we will have to re-assess that now." Elsewhere, Richard Wright will take over from Robert Green in goal with the former Everton and Arsenal man having made his debut at Bristol Rovers but then being dropped back to the bench. Also, Wales defender Danny Gabbidon is likely to make only his second start of the season, having been used for just four minutes of Premier League action so far this term.

Provisional squad: Wright, Green, Neill, Ferdinand, Upson, Gabbidon, McCartney, Bowyer, Mullins, Noble, Etherington, Ashton, Cole, Pantsil, Collins, Spector, Ljungberg, Parker, Boa Morte, Davenport, Reid, Bellamy.

East London Gone Posh

There is an interesting piece in The Times in which Martin Samuel argues West Ham United and Chelsea are actually natural rivals in London's football firmament...

A full house watched Arsenal defeat Sevilla last week. Tuesday’s Carling Cup tie against Newcastle United is also a 60,000 sell-out. Yet Chelsea drew just 24,975 for their opening Champions League match with Rosenborg. The quality of the opposition had something to do with it, as did recent results, but there is a simpler explanation, that Roman Abramovich has overlooked. For all the talk of worldwide domination, Chelsea are not a big club. Its traditional rival in London is not Arsenal or even Tottenham Hotspur: it is West Ham United.

The north London clubs are twinned geographically but also in terms of size and history. Arsenal is bigger and more successful, but Tottenham was the first team to win the Double, have won three European trophies to Arsenal’s two and until the new millennium, were ahead on the number of FA Cup victories, too. Tottenham’s desperation to break into the elite group is driven by the knowledge of its potential, if successful. At heart, it belongs.

Chelsea were always bigger than the neighbours, Fulham, just as West Ham’s mutual animosity with Millwall is weakened by spending just 20 of 87 years in the same division. So traditionally, despite being at opposite ends of London, Chelsea and West Ham pair off, too. Attendances are often similar and while Chelsea won the League in 1955 and West Ham never came close, until the last ten years, West Ham had won as many European trophies as Chelsea and had paraded the FA Cup three times to Chelsea’s one. And it is the habits of decades, not a few great years that dictates the size of a football club.

It will take Chelsea a quarter of a century at least to get what Arsenal has now; regardless of success, or the quality of football. Managers might get the blame but Chelsea’s problem, deep down, is that they are still little more than east London gone posh.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Icky Thump

And if I'm wasting my time
then nothing could be better
than hanging on the line
and waiting for an honest word forever

The media speculation machine is running red hot today and I'm not talking about the dubious
Meg White sex tape furore that seems to be sweeping the internet at the moment. According to several newspapers Michael Owen's latest injury setback means Steve McClaren is likely to take a close look at
Dean Ashton for England's crucial Euro 2008 qualifiers against Estonia and Russia next month. Ashton has taken more than a year to recover from a broken ankle but has now scored two goals in two games for his club, including a superb volley during Sunday's 3-1 defeat at Newcastle. "It's down to Steve McClaren who he picks but obviously I'd be delighted to be selected," said Ashton. "I feel I'm ready for an England call-up. It would be lovely to finally realise my dream of winning a first England cap, but I just have to be patient and I will be working as hard as possible for West Ham and, hopefully, it will come some time. I wouldn’t be playing if I wasn’t ready for an England call-up. I have been ready for a long time."

The player broke his ankle 13 months ago while training with England before the friendly match against Greece, robbing him of an international debut, but, more significantly, causing him to miss the entire season. His comeback has been gruelling, but two goals in his past two appearances for West Ham have boosted confidence. "What kept me going over the last year was just the thought of playing again and being able to go out and enjoy my football, so I’m really pleased that I’m back doing that," he said. "I feel very good. I'm glad I got 90 minutes under my belt and I was glad to get a goal but, above all, I want my team to do well and I'd like to think that my progression will help us climb the table."

During his rehabilitation Ashton was treated by John Green, a physiotherapist who has also worked with Owen, and he watched a lot of games. "I worked on every aspect of my physique with John Green but I also watched a lot of football, other teams as well as West Ham, and learnt a lot by looking at things from the outside. Being an onlooker taught me a lot," he said. "I feel I've a better understanding of football, a better feel for it. Getting the chance to watch other teams was good for me. It's massively exciting to be back, though; I really appreciate every minute I play now and I'd like to think I can help West Ham progress up the table. I'm feeling very good at the moment. I feel I'm 100% fit and that I can last the games really well. As for sharpness, I am improving day by day. It was a long, long time to be out, so it does take a long time to get all that back, but I am getting very close."

Physically imposing, the Hammers striker is in the mould of the traditional centre-forward and is pleased to see his breed apparently coming back into fashion. According to The Times, the recuperation of Ashton- a player who boasts a similar bulky physique to Heskey and could replicate the qualities of the Wigan Athletic player- represents a small glimmer of hope for the national team. "I thought Emile Heskey was outstanding for England against Israel and Russia. It was great for him to be recalled and he responded with two excellent performances so hopefully that shows there is room for a big guy up front," said Ashton.

Elsewhere, Kieron Dyer has revealed that he has been given a huge lift by the support he has received from his team-mates and the Hammers faithful as he recovers from his own injury nightmare. The midfielder suffered the injury against Bristol Rovers in the Carling Cup last month on just his third appearance for West Ham United. The England international is expected to be out for six months and Dyer is aiming to be back in the West Ham team 'sooner rather than later'. "I have been passed so many messages that the fans have been sending in," Dyer said. "Nearly every member of the squad came to see me and a lot of the staff as well. That was brilliant and really gave me a lift, considering I have only been at Upton Park a short space of time. I have been trying to stay as positive as I can. The physios and my specialist were really pleased with how the operation went and said there is no reason why I shouldn't make a full recovery. I'm focusing on that for now and getting some rest before I begin my rehab shortly. They don't give exact timescales with this type of injury because some people heal a lot quicker than others. Also, there can be complications when you have screws put in, so you have to play it by ear really. But I am just staying positive and focusing on being back and playing for West Ham sooner rather than later."

Are You Avram A laugh?

Eyal Berkovic, arguably Israeli football's most successful export to Britain, has has aimed a verbal kick to the head at Avram Grant, the new Chelsea manager, suggesting he "should be ashamed to walk the streets" and arguing he made Israelis more unpopular. Berkovic, who played for five Premiership clubs, and Celtic, admitted Grant's appointment was a milestone for Israeli football and believed he would be successful, but added: "He will be always remembered as the man who pushed away Jose Mourinho."

Writing on ONE, an Israeli website, Berkovic said: "To be honest, if there are people who hate Israelis now they hate us more because of Avram. I think the way that Grant got his job was disgusting. As a human being I would be ashamed to walk on the streets after the things Avram has done. Avram undermined Chelsea's greatest manager. The one all Chelsea fans admired with craziness and probably the most charismatic man in the football world today. And don't tell me it is not Avram Grant who did it."

The former Southampton, West Ham, Manchester City, Blackburn and Portsmouth midfielder, whose 82-cap international career was ended by Grant while he was Israel coach, added: "Way to go, Grant. You made it. There is no need to be a great manager in order to become successful with a team like Chelsea. You have got money, good players and everything you want. All you have to be is a good psychologist and you are very good at it. I have the feeling Grant will be successful but there is one problem, though. He became hated in the United Kingdom and will be always remembered as the man who pushed away Jose Mourinho. As for Chelsea players I can understand their feelings and thoughts right now. This is far from being a professional act, and it's really hard to understand."

Monday, 24 September 2007

Newcastle United 3 West Ham United 1

Vibrant Viduka Pays Dividends by Louise Taylor
The stricken local bank, Northern Rock, used Newcastle's advertising hoardings to persistently flash up the message "Rock Steady" yesterday. If financial analysts might disagree with that most brazen assertion, it was difficult to argue with those cynics who have labelled Michael Owen Tyneside's "Northern Crock"... The Guardian
Newcastle Roll On After Own Hits the Rocks by George Caulkin
The T-shirts sported by Newcastle United’s players before kick-off were emblazoned with a supportive message for a local bank that has famously undergone difficulties recently - and Sam Allardyce hopes that it will also prove a prophecy for his team... The Times
Owen Concern Takes Edge Off Newcastle's Joy by Michael Walker
Michael Owen will have a scan today to discover whether he requires surgery to correct his stubborn groin injury, a development that will concern the England manager, Steve McClaren, as much as Newcastle's Sam Allardyce... The Independent
Newcastle's Michael Own Faces Operation by Rob Stewart
Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce last night admitted for the first time he was worried that Michael Owen would need surgery to tackle a groin problem that is jeopardising his chances of leading England's attack in next month's Euro 2008 qualifiers... The Telegraph
Viduka Double Sinks Luckless Hammers
Mark Viduka announced his arrival on Tyneside with a first-half double as Newcastle saw off West Ham in a tight encounter. The Australian got his side off to the perfect start with a second-minute bullet header, and then converted Charles N'Zogbia's cross four minutes before half-time... Daily Mail

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Onward Christian Soldier

In the recent roll-call of Newcastle bad boys, Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer would figure quite highly. They return to St James' Park tomorrow as major figures in West Ham's bid to land a third successive away win in the Premier League. Alan Curbishley backed his judgment in splashing £7.5million on controversial Welshman Bellamy, but he had no worries about finding Bowyer already at the club, having nurtured him since he was a 12-year-old at Charlton. "Craig reminds me of Paolo Di Canio," said Curbishley. "When Paolo came to Charlton from West Ham, the thing that riled him more than any other was being unprofessional and people not training properly. That's like Bellamy — he trains like a trouper and expects everyone else to follow. And now he's at West Ham, he sees himself as the main man, the big fish if you like, and that may help him. He's a better player than I thought and the only problem is trying to stop him getting involved in dropping deep. When you think of Craig, you see him streaking away from the back four."

Bowyer figures highly in the Curbishley managerial story, as the Hammers boss explained: "His transfer to Leeds probably helped build Charlton's East Stand. He was the most expensive teenager in the domestic game when we sold him to Leeds, but when I came here he was trying too hard after leaving Newcastle. I told him to try and relax a bit more, though I can't stop him working as hard as he has always done. He's been such a prolific scorer when we were at Charlton and then when he was at Leeds. He just needed that goal to take the weight off his shoulders. He got it against Wigan and then scored a beauty last week against Middlesbrough."

Elsewhere, Curbishley has been reassured that his own position will not be affected by the recent boardroom reshuffle at the club. Eggert Magnusson stepped aside as executive chairman this week as the club's billionaire owner, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, pledged to take more of an active role in the running of the club. Despite building a close bond with Magnusson since taking over at Upton park in December last year, Curbishley insists he is unconcerned by the latest movements. "I have been assured that nothing much has changed. It was a bit like a blind date when I started working with Eggert, but we worked hard, and we have a good relationship. He will still be in the directors' box for our matches. I went out to dinner on Thursday with Eggert, he is at Upton Park every day, and we talk every day." Magnusson is likely to be asked to concentrate on longer-term projects, such as the club's proposed move to a new 60,000-seater stadium near West Ham tube station.

Finally, a fond farewell to Christian Dailly. Uber-permed Football Genius joined Championship side Southampton on a one-month loan yesterday, with view to a permanent deal. He is set to make his debut against Barnsley at St Mary's today. George Burley moved for the experienced centre-half after being left short in defence following injuries to Claus Lundekvam and Darren Powell. "I am delighted to bring Christian to the club for an initial month, and we will take it from there," Burley told "He will give us just the sort of experience and composure we need at the back right now. Christian is a leader, a good character and enthusiastic. He's played a lot for Scotland and has been at West Ham for many years. He's still fit and still hungry to play so bringing him in will give us a big boost."

Dailly, 33, has barely featured in the United first team since Alan Curbishley took the managerial reigns from Alan Pardew a year ago. He has slipped further down the pecking order at Upton Park since due to the arrivals of Matthew Upson, Lucas Neill and Calum Davenport. Dailly is currently the club's longest serving player, having been a Hammer since moving to Upton Park in a £1.75m switch from Blackburn (as a replacement for Leeds-bound Rio Ferdinand) in January 2001.

Randy Stags

Chelsea too small for these randy stags- Just what exactly went wrong between Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich
By Russell Brand

Jetlagged and delirious, I'm trying to make sense of the events that adorn the front and back pages of the English newspapers. Jose Mourinho and Chelsea have parted company "by mutual consent" due to a "breakdown in their relationship". This doesn't seem to me to be the typical language of the boardroom but the brittle nomenclature of damaged emotions. When I recall the numerous occasions on which I've been, in my case deservedly, sacked, my incensed employers seldom said things like "It's not you - it's me" or "I just feel we should spend some time apart". It was usually "Get out you thief" or "You smell of gin".

I'm not suggesting that Mourinho and Roman Abramovich were having a big, saucy, gay love affair that has ended in recrimination and unfulfilled potential but the fact that it would be impossible to allocate who would be passive and who the aggressor in such a tryst is perhaps central to this saga. Whilst I acknowledge that most homosexuals chuckle at the antiquated, heterosexual assumption that gay relationships have a "man" and "wife" dynamic, partnerships the world over are defined by status, and the inability of these powerful men to find professional harmony, to me, resembles two randy stags, nostrils flared, bristling, with angry erections locking horns over which one is going to bite on a branch and be Bambi's mummy.

Ultimately Chelsea are Abramovich's club and there could be only one winner but as a result we, the English nation, the Premier League and the media, have lost an intriguing and charismatic figure.

Like most people I became aware of Mourinho when he darted down the touchline arms aloft in that coat, at Old Trafford, having engineered Porto's victory over United. "What a twit," I remember thinking. The fact that the coat became independently famous is a testimony to the unique place he attained in the firmament of top-flight bosses. What other garments have secured such cachet? Brian Clough's green sweatshirt? Arsène Wenger's specs? Fergie's gum? Unless Roy Keane starts turning up to matches in cowboy boots it'll be a while until personal style makes such an impression from the dugout.

His departure is significant enough to prompt comment from figures as diverse as Gordon Brown and my mum - "He made a huge impact in such a short time" and "That dishy manager" respectively. Neither of them cared when Alan Pardew left West Ham.

We can glean from this momentous event several things: Abramovich will be satisfied with nothing less than immediate success in Europe, he wants attractive football and he wants to stick his oar in whenever he fancies and put his mates in the team. One of the difficulties is that most of the great footballing dynasties have achieved success with practical, as opposed to flamboyant, football. Milan, Juventus and recent Real Madrid sides have prioritised winning over all else whereas teams like Barcelona or Arsenal always have moments of vulnerability and but two European Cup wins between them.

Personally, I'm sad about it. I've mentioned in this column before that Mourinho's presence at Chelsea prevented me from harbouring the hatred expected of a West Ham fan for our rivals across the capital because he provoked in me a kind of neutered lust. I enjoyed his aloof, snooty, manipulative interviews and eccentric outbursts; calling dear Wenger a voyeur and Frank Rijkaard a pervert. What about when he fled from police with his unquarantined lapdog? That's berserk, I can't imagine any other manager embarking on such a daft quest.

Sam Allardyce would not try to sneak his cat into a disco, David Moyes would never ride a cow to work and Alex Ferguson wouldn't squabble with cider tycoons over the ownership of a gee-gee. Actually he would because he too is a genius in the business of football management and in exchange for that bedazzling gift we'll tolerate his refusal to talk to the BBC, his hurling of boots at national treasures and his insistence on absolute authority at his club. But Abramovich wouldn't tolerate that, which is why when Chelsea visit Sir Alex's Manchester United tomorrow it'll be under the stewardship of Avram Grant, of whom I know little but suspect if Abramovich demanded his yacht play in goal and his wife on the wing would offer little resistance.

Like many a spurned lover before him Mourinho said he was going to take time off to unwind and wait for the phone to ring. I don't imagine he'll have long to wait till he gets optimistic tinklings from north and possibly east London and whatever he chooses to do I don't suppose it'll be long before he's back at the Bridge with a new paramour and then I suspect it'll be Abramovich who ends up heartbroken.

Guardian column

Friday, 21 September 2007

Get Curbs

It's a three hour train ride from London's King Cross to Newcastle's 'craphole', but it's 3,000 light years from home...

Craig Bellamy, Lee Bowyer, Nolberto Solano and Scott Parker will have extra reason for wanting a place in West Ham United's squad against Newcastle United at St James' Park on Sunday. The quartet, along with injured Kieron Dyer, have all swapped black and white for claret and blue in recent times and would love nothing more than helping West Ham to take another three points in what has been a tremendous start to the new campaign. Bellamy, 28, made 93 league appearances for Newcastle, scoring 27 goals between June 2001 and 2005, while Bowyer struck six goals in 79 league outings in three seasons from July 2003.

Solano and Parker are both yet to make their West Ham debuts with the former only arriving just before the transfer window shut and the latter just back to fitness after a pre-season knee injury. Former club captain Parker was involved in 55 fixtures, with four goals, after moving to the north east in June 2005. Solano had two spells at Newcastle, with a total of 230 league appearances, and 37 goals. "I am looking forward to going back to Newcastle, if I have the opportunity to play," said Solano. "I will be professional because I am a West Ham United player now. Hopefully our good form can continue because the team is trying to finish well. It's going to be strange. If I am in the squad it will be my first game with the team and it will be against my old team. I have to take it in a professional way and I have nothing whatsoever against Newcastle. I have a fantastic relationship with the fans, a great relationship with the people there. Football is like that, you never know when that will happen. I'm a West Ham United player and I'm looking forward to doing my best here."

Alan Curbishley is especially hopeful his Welsh striker will be fit to make the trip to Tyneside. Bellamy has been suffering with a tight groin in recent weeks and had to come off in the first half of the Hammers' 3-0 win over Middlesbrough. "The problem, as we understand it, is that he has been wearing orthotics in his boot to correct discomfort he's felt in certain areas," explained Curbishley. "It has cleared up the problem he had, but created another. We thought it might be a hernia but it's just that the mouldings have put more pressure on certain parts of his body that before. It's just something we'll have to work through. In pre-season he, Scott Parker and Julien Faubert set the tone for our training. He trains like a Trojan and he expects everyone else to do the same." It was also revealed that Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon are back in training and in contention for a place in the squad after suffering a respective knee injury and illness.

Despite conflicting reports concerning his fitness, England striker Michael Owen is included in the Newcastle squad for Sunday's clash after overcoming a groin problem. The 27-year-old is included, and could once again line up alongside Mark Viduka, who has recovered from a hamstring strain. Joey Barton (fractured metatarsal) and Emre (knee) are back in training but not yet available, and Jose Enrique is yet to gain full match fitness, while Peter Ramage (knee), Damien Duff (ankle), Stephen Carr and Celestine Babayaro (both hamstring) are still out.

Finally, for all those travelling up for the game this weekend here is a little something to set you on your way.


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