Thursday, 31 January 2008

New Cap, Tight Belt

Matthew Upson has been one of the big beneficiaries of the new England shake-up after being called up for Fabio Capello's first England squad. On a sour note, Robert Green and Dean Ashton have been overlooked once again. The Hammers defender, who has four caps to his name has been included in the provisional 30-man squad for the friendly against Switzerland next week. The only two new caps in what is a surprisingly unadventurous selection are Aston Villa's Curtis Davies and Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Other inclusions of interest are Villa winger Ashley Young, who made his England debut against Austria in November, and Blackburn's David Bentley, who profits from Beckham's absence. Capello said: "I know there has been a lot of discussion about David Beckham. The reason that David is not in the squad is because he has not had any real match practice since playing in November. When I spoke with David on the phone yesterday I advised him that he is still part of my plans and once he is playing regularly in America we will look closely at him again."

He added: "I have selected a squad of 30 players as I think it is important that all the players are equal from the beginning. There are a lot of games before we join up and I think it is better that we are prepared for any injuries. This way we are not expecting to call players up as late replacements when I name a 23-man squad on Saturday evening. Franco Baldini and I have been watching many games since we arrived in England and we have tried to see as many English players as possible before deciding on the squad. There were a number of players that we already knew about but there are many we have seen playing live for the first time. We will use the time between now and our first World Cup qualifying match in September to look at the players and find the best formula for the England team. I will also look at players who have not been included in the squad this time."

Capello said he had worked closely with Stuart Pearce on squad selection, noting that "there are some players like Joe Hart, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott and David Wheater who are with the Under-21s this time because they have a very important qualification game against Ireland on Tuesday." Mark Noble is included in that group after he was named in Stuart Pearce's squad. Nine-times-capped Noble, who has scored three goals for the under 21s, was the only Hammer named in the squad for the European Under-21 qualifier, which is being played at Southampton's St Mary's Stadium.

In other news, according to an article by Andrew Dillon in today's Sun, West Ham United have been forced to abandon plans for a new £10million training complex amid a cash squeeze at the club. It is claimed Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson has ordered a massive belt-tightening from top to bottom after boss Alan Curbishley was allowed to lash out £40million in the last 13 months. Curbishley had overseen proposals to move the first-team squad to Rush Green in Barking, site of the old Ford Utd FC. But, claims Dillon, he may now have to stay put at the club’s cramped Chadwell Heath HQ. A West Ham spokesman said: "There were one or two issues with that site. But other options are being investigated."

Card Of Nonentity

Formerly, he thinks to himself, an artist took real people and transformed them into painted ones: how much finer and more satisfying is the modern method of assuming that people are not real at all, only self-painted, and of proceeding to make them real by giving them new selves based on the best-available theories of human nature. . . . it is incredible to think how well the open ear responds to a little love and chronological falsification
Nigel Dennis, Cards of Identity

It is the last day of the transfer window and so far the only signing we have to show for it is a forty-plus journeyman from Lincoln City. To be fair to Nigel Dennis, our new Facilities Manager and Deputy Safety Officer, he does seem to be a well respected figure in the field of Operations & Safety. I just have my doubts he will prove adequate cover for our paper-thin left back area or injury ravaged central defence; not to mention boost our perpetually ailing strike force or add creative flair to our ponderous midfield. At least he shares the same name as the writer and critic who penned the criminally overlooked Cards of Identity. That's the kind of amusing thing to sustain you when your rampaging charge for Europe founders on the rocks of one too many injuries.

Sashaying through the outdoor is luxuriantly permed Football Genius Christian Dailly. Rangers took the Scotland international back home yesterday until the end of the season. The Mirror claims the 34-year-old left West Ham after falling out of favour and that Rangers have taken over his contract, in a move similar to their capture of David Weir 12 months ago. He has won 66 caps for Scotland and effectively replaces Ugo Ehiogu in Walter Smith's squad. Ehiogu moved to Sheffield United earlier this month. Dailly can fill several defensive roles or could be deployed as a holding midfielder by Smith, who knows the veteran well from his spell in charge of the national team. A loan spell with Southampton earlier this season was an indication Dailly was becoming surplus to requirements and he will hope for more involvement at Ibrox. Dailly was included in new Scotland boss George Burley's first squad, ahead of a training get-together which will take place from Sunday to Tuesday.

Dailly, 33, had barely featured in the United first team since Alan Curbishley took the managerial reigns, slipping further down the pecking order at Upton Park due to the arrivals of Matthew Upson, Lucas Neill and Calum Davenport. Dailly was 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.

All spurious and demented West Ham related Deadline Day stories will be added here as they break...

This morning: Several of the newspapers predict a last minute raid for perennial favourite Giles Barnes. Newcastle's Charles N'Zogbia is said to be set for a move to London and we've been put in the frame.

This lunchtime: Various reports of a Dean Ashton sighting outside the City of Manchester Stadium. There is much unsubstantiated whispering about a supposed £10million fee. A shadowy well-informed insider on the BBC site 'guarantees' Tottenham, West Ham and Newcastle will all make big moves by midnight. He won't reveal his source but insists fans of those teams will be very pleased. Tottenham will sign a Spanish international. West Ham will sign a bit part England international and Newcastle will sign two players, one a top Premier League centre back and the other a creative midfielder.

This Afternoon: Someone sees John Arne Riise close to Upton Park. Some think a loan deal could be in the pipeline. Nigel Quashie is witnessed emerging from an Alfa Romeo in the car park of Derby County's training ground. The first part of shadowy well-informed insider's revelation could be coming true as Newcastle prepare to announce the signature of Fabio Zamblera.

Reflections On Liverpool

Alan Curbishley could not hide his elation after West Ham United once again showed their tremendous form with a superb 1-0 triumph against Liverpool. It was the first time in 12 meetings that the club had got the better of the Reds, and the manager had plenty of words of praise for the way his team - from Robert Green at the back to Carlton Cole in attack - stuck to the task before deservedly taking the points with a late Mark Noble penalty.

"It was a fantastic result for us," he said. "We have had to keep it tight, work ever so hard. Everybody played their part, Greeny made the saves when he needed to and the back four once again have stood really firm. We've got a terrific defensive record and we needed it. I am delighted for the players. It was mentioned yesterday that West Ham have had a turbulent record against Liverpool. I wasn't fully aware of it. As they have shown all season, they gave everything. We are chopping and changing a lot of the time but they have given everything. It is nice when you get the result in the last minute and we will take it."

Talking about the penalty that won it, Curbishley said he left it up to the players to decide who was going to take the responsibility. "Reina's good on penalties and I saw Dean Ashton walking towards it as well. Mark took the one at the Birmingham, while Deano was the penalty taker last year but Mark took it and put it on the spot. He was confident I think but you have to ask him how confident." Already thinking about Saturday's trip to Wigan Athletic, he added: "We have got to keep the run going. We have had to use everything we have got. We have had players playing out of position, we have had to change things during the game and perhaps put people in unfamiliar places. They have shown great character. I think West Ham fans should be looking at them and saying what they are producing is fantastic - a great attitude."

Mark Noble revealed he was determined to take the last-gasp spot-kick that gave West Ham United a valuable 1-0 victory against Liverpool. "We have only had two this year. I scored the first one, so my record was 100 per cent," he said. "No one was going to go against me. I was taking it no matter what. As soon as I picked up the ball I thought Reina's got a reputation...but I was so confident that I was going to score, I didn't feel that nervous." Curbishley was full of praise for Noble's all-round contribution. "For a young boy he has shown great maturity," the manager said. "He really looked as if he was enjoying himself tonight. I left him out a couple of times just before Christmas and he was playing with an injury. He had this hernia problem, and he never told anyone. In the end he had to have it done. The rest he had has done him good."

Freddie Ljungberg was understandably enthused by the lead-up to the penalty. "Matty played the ball but it was a bit behind me so I waited until he came up because we were the only two players up there," explained the Swede. "He checked back and then chipped the ball to me. I took it on the chest and was thinking maybe I should volley it but I decided to chip the ball up and he took my standing foot. I was trying to get him to throw himself at me so I could take the ball around him and go for goal but instead he tripped me." For Ljungberg and West Ham, now four points behind Liverpool and with just one defeat in their last seven league games, the only way appears to be up. "We've looked at the league table and we believe we can move on up, it's so tight," said Ljungberg. "I think we're getting there. Personally, I've felt really good for the past month and we're starting to play the ball on the floor a bit more which suits me. I said from the beginning that Europe is a realistic aim. That's why I joined the club, to build something. We've had a lot of injuries but we're still up there. We're so close now and playing really well."

"It was nice to have another clean sheet," added Matthew Upson. "It starts from the front, the strikers and all the way through. As a back-four unit we were solid, limited them to very few chances and we are very pleased. I had every faith in Mark. He is a good penalty taker, he has got a lot of bottle - a cool head on young shoulders. He stepped up and really put it away nicely. It was a great atmosphere, as evening games here are. To win against a big team like Liverpool puts us in a nice position in the table. It all looks very positive." The seven-times capped defender is in a unique club of just two outfield Premier League players who have played every minute for their clubs this season. He will find out at 3.30pm today whether he has earned a recall to the England fold when new manager Fabio Capello names a preliminary squad for next Wednesday's home friendly against Switzerland. "I am very focused on achieving an England place," the 28-year-old ever-present said. "That is something that I am desperate to do. All I can keep doing is playing well. I am looking to improve all the time and I am really enjoying being at West Ham. We are playing some good football here. I will keep working at it and see how far it takes me."

Finally, Alan Curbishley has told the fans they "need to get behind the players" after Luis Boa Morte was roundly vilified for missing a golden opportunity to put West Ham ahead when the score was still 0-0. "It's happened a couple of times," lamented Curbishley. "They need to get behind the players. Luis has been out a month and came back at Manchester City and put everything in." Curbishley felt that Boa Morte gave his all against Liverpool, too, as he continues his return from hamstring trouble. And he explained why he had to take Carlton Cole off late in the game. "It wasn't popular because people think that it is a forward coming off, but Steven Gerrard was running riot and I had to do something about it. I put Jon [Spector] on there to try and stop that and he did. Sometimes you have to do things in games that perhaps people don't see but we have to do it."

West Ham United 1 Liverpool 0

"It's tremendous - if you're going to get a penalty and score then it's a great time to do it. Week in and week out we've put in a lot of effort - the squad have a fantastic attitude and full credit goes to them. We've lost three games in the last 16 and that's gone unnoticed."~ Alan Curbishley

Noble Penalty Plunges Liverpool Into Seventh Hell by Dominic Fifield
Liverpool's plod in the Premier League has juddered to a halt. A side who had expected to challenge for the title back in autumn gasp in seventh place this morning, their season steadily unravelling around a bewildered Rafael Benítez... Guardian
Benitez Put On The Spot As Noble Penalty Adds To Misery by Tom Dart
Is this the way it will end for Rafael Benítez, with a bang and a whimper? The bang was Jamie Carragher’s crass connection with Fredrik Ljungberg that gave Mark Noble an opportunity to score the winning penalty that he embraced with aplomb. The whimper was Liverpool’s performance... Times
Noble On Spot To Punish Liverpool by Mike Rowbottom
Liverpool's season began to unravel last night as a penalty in the third minute of injury time from Mark Noble inflicted a defeat which distanced them yet further from the sharp end of the Premier League and a position which is not so much desirable as essential in the wake of their recent £350m refinancing by the club's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett... Independent
Benitez Shows Strain Of Liverpool Defeat by John Ley
Rafael Benitez offered a defiant response to Liverpool's latest disappointment last night, insisting that the club, in seventh place after this defeat, could still qualify for the Champions League, while not completely ruling out winning the title. Yet, after watching Mark Noble convert a penalty in the fourth minute of added time, the Liverpool manager carried the air of man under pressure... Telegraph
Noble's Spot Prize Heaps Mre Pressure On Rafa by Neil Ashton
Cast your mind back to Boxing Day and Liverpool's 2-1 victory at Derby was expected to be the catalyst for a charge towards the Barclays Premier League title. Four successive draws and a defeat later, a frustrated Rafael Benitez and his team can forget about getting their hands on the crown jewels... Mail
Noble Puts Rafa Right On The Spot by Matt Law
Liverpool really can forget about the title. And if they are not careful, their Champions League hopes will be under threat as well... Express

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

A Return To Action

Barclays Premier League
West Ham United v Liverpool
Boleyn Ground
Wednesday 30 January
Referee: Alan Wiley
Weather: The forecast is for a chilly evening, with the threat of rain. The temperature is set to peak at around 6C.

Tenth-placed West Ham United return to league action against Liverpool tonight, seven points ahead in sixth, having not played since the 1-1 draw at Manchester City on Sunday 20 January. Curbishley's side are in fine league form, with six wins and five draws from the last 14 fixtures. The only three reverses came against strong opposition in the form of Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal. With ninth-placed Portsmouth going to Manchester United on the same night, the Hammers will know there is the possibility that a victory could move them to within a point of Pompey with a game in hand. Blackburn Rovers are in eighth, five points in front of the Hammers but have played two games more.

Depending on results Liverpool could jump to fourth place in the table with a win. The visitors head to Upton Park still searching for their first league win of 2008. It is a statistic that has seen them draw their last four matches in the topflight and one that Rafael Benitez admits has all-but ended their hopes of landing the Premier League title. Liverpool have played twice since the Hammers were last in action - a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa on 21 January before Saturday's 5-2 FA Cup fourth-round win against non-league Havant and Waterlooville - with Yossi Benayoun scoring a hat-trick in between a stunner from Lucas and a late fifth by Peter Crouch.

It is thought the game will be too soon for Danny Gabbidon and Craig Bellamy, despite a reserve-team run-out. Nolberto Solano, who has not figured since a hamstring injury on 29 December, may also just miss out. Matthew Etherington and Dean Ashton have trained after knee and back problems respectively caused them to miss the City trip. Julien Faubert has a slight calf strain and is doubtful, while Bobby Zamora continues to train fully, on his way back to match fitness. John Pantsil and Henri Camara are still on Africa Cup of Nations duty while, after a serious reserve-team injury last week, James Collins (knee ligaments) has joined Scott Parker (knee), Calum Davenport (neck), Kieron Dyer (leg), Nigel Quashie (foot) on the long-term list - although Parker has returned to Chadwell Heath after a period of rest.

Liverpool are still without Andriy Voronin, Daniel Agger and Alvaro Arbeloa, while Javier Mascherano will be denied the chance of a return to Upton Park because of a one-match suspension caused by his fifth caution of the season against Villa. Mohamed Sissoko has departed to Juventus but Slovakia centre-back Martin Skrtel has arrived from Zenit St Petersburg and he made his first start at the weekend. The Reds are likely to recall Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Jamie Carragher for this evening's clash after they were rested for Saturday's 5-2 victory in the FA Cup. Yossi Benayoun will also hope to feature and is guaranteed an 'interesting' reception should he make an appearance.

West Ham United have not played Liverpool this season as the away fixture was originally due to be played in mid-August but was postponed because of the Reds' Champions League commitments. It has now been fixed for 8pm at Anfield on Wednesday 5 March. The teams last met exactly a year ago, on Tuesday 30 January 2007, at the Boleyn Ground. On that date, West Ham United were 18th in the top flight, with just 20 points from their opening 25 games - 13 fewer than they have from 22 games this time around. Dirk Kuyt and Peter Crouch goals early in the second half put Liverpool on course for a 2-1 win, with on-loan Kepa Blanco then scoring with his first touch in a claret and blue shirt. Alan Curbishley remembers that night under the lights as "such a poor performance" - but is not expecting a repeat, despite the fact Liverpool are again pushing for the Champions League places. He said: "We've got another opportunity against a top-four side. I'm sure if we attack it right we'll give ourselves a chance. We're really looking forward to it."

Liverpool have not lost to West Ham United in eleven games since Trevor Sinclair's goal gave the Hammers a 1-0 home win on 27 November 1999 - a game in which both Hyypia and Gerrard played the full 90 minutes, while Carragher was an unused substitute. Anton Ferdinand's older brother Rio was in the Hammers rearguard that day. Curbishley simply sees that as an opportunity to set the record straight. "We'll have to try and change it. We've competed so far this year in all the games we've played against the 'top four'. They've been tight games. We've got to give ourselves a chance and give the fans something to get behind because that makes a big difference."

Head to head (last six meetings, league unless stated)

30 January 2007 - West Ham United 1-2 Liverpool
26 August 2006 - Liverpool 2-1 West Ham United
13 May 2005 - Liverpool 3-3 West Ham United, 3-1 on pens (FA Cup final)
26 April 2006 - West Ham United 1-2 Liverpool
29 October 2005 - Liverpool 2-0 West Ham United
2 February 2003 - West Ham United 0-3 Liverpool

Vagaries Of Football Ownership

Alan Curbishley believes Liverpool’s American owners have harmed the club’s chances of silverware by their inability to keep quiet off the pitch. The West Ham United manager has had plenty to say ahead of tonight's clash with Rafael Benitez’s side, who arrive at Upton Park tonight well adrift of Manchester United and Arsenal in the battle for Premier League glory. Curbishley admitted he had been astonished by the constant stream of stories emanating from Anfield this season, including the revelation that Jurgen Klinsmann had been approached about succeeding the Spaniard. Speculation about a buy-out and reports that co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have differing ideas about how the club should be run have also helped turn the current campaign into a soap opera. And Curbishley is convinced that it is a betrayal of Liverpool’s golden era of the 1970s and ’80s when an absence of controversy behind the scenes was the key to glory on the pitch.

Speaking to Sky News, Curbishley stated, "What is happening now - in the atmosphere we have got in the Premier League with new owners appearing every month - is that perhaps they are not really up on the way football is and the traditions, and the way to perhaps conduct yourself. A loose comment here and a loose comment there can make a big difference. When I played it was the players that were written about. Then it changed to the managers and now it’s the chairmen more than anyone else. It’s an interesting circle. But if the relationship between the manager and chairman isn’t strong then it won’t work. I played against the great Liverpool sides. They won the games, won everything and nothing else ever came out of the club. It was always a club that got on with things in-house but what’s happening now is distracting for the manager and players."

In contrast, Curbishley enjoys a healthy relationship with his chairman, Icelandic businessman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, and has urged the American duo to change their ways if they want Liverpool to be successful. "There are lots of things chairmen of clubs need to realise," Curbishley said. "They need to understand the tradition and the history - even if it's all new to them. They may think it's normal business rules, but football is different. It's not like any other business, it has different rules. One thing you have to do is adhere to the history and tradition of the club and I think at West Ham we've managed to do that. I speak with the chairman on the phone and he lets me get on with my job, just like I did under Richard Murray at Charlton, and I'm happy with that. When Eggert Magnusson was here we had constant dialogue and since it’s changed I’ve not had that but we speak often and he has left me to get on with it. There is also a bit of turmoil in his world with the banks but I think he’s quite happy with how things are going here."

West Ham's stability under the Icelandic billionaire is a major contrast to the upheaval at Liverpool and Curbishley says that the turmoil engulfing Anfield has severely hindered Benitez's title hopes. "Liverpool are a top side," Curbishley said. "The only thing which is perhaps happening at Anfield is there's lots of stuff coming out. They've always been a club which has got on with it and everything has been in-house, so nothing has really come out of the club. But now there are stories about this, stories about that, and I suppose it's distracting for the manager and the players. Rafa has only been there a few years and it takes time, whatever we say about the Premier League. They've won everything else and we shouldn't forget that."

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Treasure Within

A more cynical man than me could suspect a subliminal subtext behind the current rash of upbeat stories featuring our youth team and reserve players on the official site. The message from the West Ham hierarchy is ostensibly that our future is in safe hands. Yet the judicious timing of such statements, released at the point that media transfer speculation is at its most rife, seems intended to convince the fans that no new players are needed in the current transfer window.

So Tony Carr is apparently delighted with young goalkeeper Marek Stech who celebrated his 18th birthday yesterday. The shot-stopper has won many admirers at the club already - not only for his imposing physique and obvious talent, but also for his work ethic and modest nature off the pitch, and is getting the best possible guidance about how to conduct himself both on and off the pitch - especially with compatriot Ludek Miklosko around as goalkeeping coach. Of the Prague-born teenager, who joined West Ham United in July 2005, Carr said: "We haven't produced a goalkeeper through the youth academy for a very long time. Hopefully he is the one that can fill in that missing link. He is a real prospect and we have got high hopes. He has got a lovely size about him and a great attitude."

The Czech Republic youth international, who starred in the 2006 European Under-17 Championship final, has stepped up to reserve-team level this campaign, not least last Wednesday when he more than played his part in the 1-0 victory away to Portsmouth. Since then, Stech has been forced on to the sidelines to rest an ankle ligament injury suffered in training but Carr said the problem would not deter his young charge for too long, citing his continual commitment to honing his skills. "He always wants to train and come in on his day off - he always wants to do that bit extra. There is no ego with him and he is definitely one for the future."

Jack Collison has been again been called up to the Wales U21s and is not too far away from being promoted to the senior set-up, according to Danny Gabbidon. The 19-year-old midfielder has been named in Brian Flynn's squad for a vital European Under-21 Championship qualifier away to Malta a week on Tuesday. It is the latest step forward in a campaign to remember. Collison first impressed in pre-season, was then made reserve-team captain, scored a wonder goal on his U21 debut and finally made his first senior West Ham United appearance on 1 January at Arsenal. "He is brilliant," said Danny Gabbidon. "He could easily play in our first team. He has been in and around the first team and he deserves that. His performances week-in, week-out in training and in games are top drawer. There are a few other young lads who, if they keep playing as they are, are going to become really good players."

Collison qualifies for Wales through a grandfather and his decision to play for the principality came via much prompting from the strong Welsh contingent at the Boleyn Ground - including, of course, Gabbidon. "I got on to him a couple of times about it," the fit-again defender said. The Under-21 manager, was on to me about it as well. Jack said he was interested and eventually, the manager came to the training ground, watched him train and had a word with him." That led to Collison's selection for the European U21 Championship qualifier at home against Bosnia-Herzegovina last November. The Cambridge-born attacking midfielder capped a sparkling display with the final goal in a 4-0 victory, running from midfield beyond three opponents, playing a neat one-two and then rounding the keeper to score. "It is great to have him," Gabbidon added, mindful that the future is bright for Wales and that there is a realistic chance of qualifying for the 2009 U21 finals in Sweden - especially as Collison went on to play his part in a 4-2 defeat of France five days after his debut. "We have got a lot of good young players coming into the Welsh team now and he is going to be one of them," added Gabbidon. "It won't be too long until he is in the full squad if he keeps carrying on the way he is."

James Tomkins is another with an impending international date. The young central defender came close to his senior-team debut when he made the matchday 16 against Arsenal on New Year's Day and Alan Curbishley has reiterated that he would not hesitate to use him in future. "If the opportunity arises, I'll give them a game," said the West Ham United manager when asked about the chances of Tomkins, who has been a regular of late for the reserves, and midfield colleague Jack Collison breaking into the first-team picture. Tompkins will join up with the England Under-19 squad for a Tuesday night friendly against Croatia in Swindon. The match will be the perfect opportunity for England to prepare for the next qualifying phase of their bid to reach this July's final European U19 Championship final round in Ukraine. The Young Lions will meet Poland, Serbia and Belarus on 26, 28 and 31 May respectively with the group winners from this Elite round going forward to the eight-team finals. Jordan Spence, Junior Stanislas and Freddie Sears have also been in the U19 frame this season and all will have hopes of being involved as well.

Freddie Sears
underlined his burgeoning potential with yet another crucial goal for Tony Carr's youth side at the weekend. The 18-year-old striker has had quite a week. He travelled with the first team to Manchester City last Sunday, started in attack alongside Craig Bellamy in the reserves on Wednesday and then struck a deserved equaliser to earn a 3-3 draw for the Academy side at home against Charlton Athletic. The Hammers had led 2-0 at one point but were pegged back by a spirited performance by their London rivals. Tony Carr said: "I am pleased we came back and showed a bit of character to get something but a little bit concerned that we made basic errors to let a team we had there for the beating back into the game. We will do analysis and work on the training ground to make sure that it doesn't happen again. It was a lack of communication and lack of people taking responsibility." Of Sears, Carr added: "He had a quiet game today but he notched a goal. That is goalscorers, you can never keep them quiet. They will have quiet spells in a game but they are always likely to score. He played in midweek and we have asked a lot of him to play two games in four days but that is going to happen occasionally. It doesn't happen every week."

Monday, 28 January 2008

Obama The Hammer

West Ham United may soon have a fan in the West Wing — White House contender Barack Obama. Writing in The Sun, Bizarre Editor Gordon Smart claims US Presidential hopeful Mr Obama, 46, has been following the Hammers ever since a visit to Britain five years ago. He keeps in touch with the fortunes of his team through his relatives in England — who are all Hammers fanatics. The Kent-based clan now hope Mr Obama will be singing the club’s anthem 'I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles' all the way to the President's office.

The US senator, whose sister married an Englishman, scored a crucial weekend victory when he trounced Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary. His campaign team recently revealed he is a massive soccer fan and a nifty player himself while a student at Harvard Law School. Mr Obama watches Premier League games whenever his schedule allows. A campaign source said last night: "Obama is a big sports nut and loves his soccer. He never really followed it, though, until he was told all about the passion of West Ham fans by some of his English relatives. He’s always keen to find out how his adopted club are getting on." Rival Hillary, 60, has been linked with Man Utd after hubby Bill, the ex-President, revealed the Reds were his favourite team.

West Ham shirt sponsors have been quick to grab a little free publicity by exploiting the news that the Democrat nominee has links to the club. They have offered to fly Obama to West Ham's next home game, give him a free ticket and provide him with free hospitality. "We send thousands of West Ham fans to Florida every summer so we'd be delighted to bring the Senator over to the UK," said managing director Martin Lock.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Wage Rows And Expensive Rounds

The Sunday paper round-up of lies, speculation and half-truths is as unedifying as always. The News of the World claim Dean Ashton is heading for a major showdown with the club after being left behind in the salary stakes. It is reported that Ashton wants to double his current £23,000- a-week wage following the arrival of Freddie Ljungberg, Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer whose wages dwarf the striker's. Now, with Arsenal and Newcastle United supposedly showing interest in him, Ashton wants to renegotiate his contract.

In addition, Upton Park captain Lucas Neill will not be far behind Ashton when it comes to knocking on the door over money. The article states both are upset that they are now way down the club's pay scale following the influx of big names during the summer. Ljungberg, 30, arrived from Arsenal on a free transfer and his deal and image rights is worth a staggering £80,000 a week. Bellamy, Dyer and Scott Parker are not that far behind and that has created simmering tensions in the dressing room. Icelandic owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson is said to blame fellow countryman Eggert Magnusson for the problem and it was one of the main reasons he ousted him as chairman. The feeling was that Magnusson had allowed the club's salary structure to spiral out of control, and despite a solid season after avoiding relegation and overcoming a whole range of internal issues last year, Hammers manager Alan Curbishley is now having to confront the consequences of magnusson's lavish spending policy.

Ashton was sigined for £7.5million from Norwich City two years ago. At the time he was West Ham United's record signing and instantly became one of the club's top earners but he is now way down the pecking order. Even Lucas Neill, who joined the club during last January's transfer window from Blackburn Rovers, is on £55,000 a week and a long way behind Ljungberg. Both Ashton and Neil still have two years to run on their contracts and they want significantly improved terms otherwise they will both seek to move on in the summer. The paper insists the situation is a massive headache for Alan Curbishley after he succeessfully stabilised the team on and off the pitch. While the Hammers boss ideally wants to keep both players he understands that owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson is determined to tighten belts as he draws up plans to move to a new stadium. That is why there has been no activity during the current transfer window even though Alan Curbishley would like to add Darren Bent in a cut price £12million deal.

The message has been sent out by Gudmundsson that he will not let players dictate terms to the club as Magnusson allowed. In Ashton's case the West Ham United board believe the player still has to prove himself having spent a year out of action with injury. While Lucas Neill has been told that for a 29 year old full back he is on bigger money than he could reasonably command at any other club in the country. In an unrelated piece, it is also reported that Neill strolled into the Aussie owned Walkabout pub in London's West End yesterday and bought a drink for every person to celebrate Australia Day. He said: ""I'm a proud Australian and I wanted to do something for all the backpackers over here. It's an emotional day for me and I know some of them don't arrive here with a lot of cash, just like I did when I was starting out, so it was my way of giving them a bit of a lift."

The Sunday Star think West Ham United are ready to battle it out with Newcastle United for the services of Derby winger Giles Barnes before the window closes. Alan Curbishley has so far had a quiet transfer window but that could all be about to change before the transfer deadline passes on Thursday. Barnes has been a long-term target for the Hammers and, following speculation linking Newcastle with a move for the winger, Curbishley may be forced to move now if he wishes to land his man. Derby are loathe to lose the player but with the Rams heading back to the Championship a move is expected to happen if Paul Jewell receives a big enough offer.

The people over at Sky suggest the Hammers are interested in want-away forward Lars Nilsson. The striker could be set to leave St Etienne as he is growing increasingly frustrated at his lack of first-team opportunities. Nilsson joined the French side from Heerenveen last summer, but has been handed just one first-team appearance since his switch. Reports in France suggest West Ham United, Lens, Sochaux, Lorient and Auxerre are all monitoring the Swede's situation. Nilsson, 26, is at a loss as to why Laurent Roussey brought him to Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, and is open to offers, with a view to leaving in January. "I joined St Etienne with a lot of hopes. But I can't really understand why they approached me," he said in L'Equipe. "I want to play. If it is at St Etienne, that's fine. If it is somewhere else, I will go somewhere else. Sometimes I talk to the coach, but my situation does not change."

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Morrissey Talks The Language Of West Ham

Is Morrissey talking the language of West Ham?
By Russell Brand

Is it insanely narcissistic for me to contemplate that Morrissey is trying to communicate with me through the wearing of replica West Ham tops? The answer is, of course, "Yes". "Yes it is. Why would you even need to ask?" Well, because I've been courting Morrissey, of whom I'm a lifelong fan (if that life is about 18 years), for several months with the intention of persuading him to commit to a documentary where I interview him, follow him about and analyse his legacy.

He is aware of my devotion to the Hammers and seems rather fond of me; recently on stage at a handful of gigs that I was unfortunately unable to attend he introduced the members of his band before saying "and I'm Russell Brand". When I heard tell of this I became all queasy and loopy and reckoned it to be the start of a beautiful friendship with a beloved icon. The knowledge of this name-check dramatically impaired my enjoyment of the performance I attended at the Camden Roundhouse this week ("I don't perform, seals perform ... unfortunately") as between each song I became rigid with dashed expectation as I awaited the utterance of my name like it was the sixth Lotto Thunderball number. The trepidation was so torturously unbearable that I nearly leapt to my feet and screeched: "I'm Russell and I need you to love me."

Thankfully I just sat there all spurned, listening to the hardcore chant, to the tune of "'Ere We Go", "Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey". I once did a gig with Noel Gallagher and the similarity between the crowd there and at football was startling but I suppose somehow natural because of the obvious corollary of those two demographics, but would you expect to find a large terrace fraternity at a Morrissey gig?

I suppose I'm an unlikely member of both groups, alas on that occasion, unlike at Upton Park I was unwilling to subjugate my identity into the throng but instead perched on my seat's edge wringing my clammy fists like a meekly loyal housekeeper waiting to be listed in the Oscar acceptance speech of an oblivious employer.

At the point in his set where he introduced his band I became so agitated with futile hope that I kicked over my neighbour's drink and locked hands with my companion so tightly that to escape she had to chew through her own wrist like a trapped fox. The fantastic set concluded, quite rightly, without any mention of my name, which has helped me to re-evaluate my expectations of live entertainment. I won't on Wednesday, for Liverpool's visit to West Ham, expect Dean Ashton and Mark Noble to come out at half-time and sing "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" without once breaking eye contact with me, and I think that alone will make it a more enjoyable evening.

So, with my unrealistic, egocentric dementia happily acknowledged we can return to the question posed at this article's genesis. On the cover of his new single That's How People Grow Up Morrissey is wearing a West Ham Boy's Club T-shirt - now he did once wear the same shirt nine years ago, before we met, before he would've had any awareness of my existence, unless he was a secret attendant of Grays School's production of Bugsy Malone in which I dazzled as Fat Sam, but is there even the remotest possibility that his renewed interest in the garment could've been sparked by my own allegiance to the club? "No, let it go." Well, after the show I asked him. Not outright like Paxman, more opaque and obtuse, like Columbo.

I had him cornered but not isolated; also present were the former QPR striker, now with MK Dons, Kevin Gallen and a bloke called Liam, who I think was a Millwall fan. I cagily asked Morrissey why he had taken to wearing the claret and blue, fingers crossed in pockets that the response would come "Because of you, darling boy" but before Morrissey spoke Kevin said, "You're a QPR fan ain't ya?" and Liam said, "I thought you liked Millwall?"

I saw this as a brilliant opportunity to recount an intriguing anecdote I once heard on the History Channel, told by an old German man who had once been a member of the Hitler Youth (I know this is the second consecutive week that I've mentioned Hitler, I'm not secretly Nazi, I don't know why it keeps happening, I think he was a wicked, wicked man. Wicked as in bad, not hip and edgy.)

It was along the lines of: "We the assembled ranks of the Hitler Youth were watching the Führer give a speech, and at the point he said 'You young men are the future of the Fatherland' he looked right into my eyes and I knew he was speaking specifically to me. When I told the other members of my experience each of them said 'No, when he said that he looked into my eyes'"

Now I related this to demonstrate amusingly that all three of us had keenly believed that Morrissey was a follower of our chosen team but midway through I remembered NME coating him off and calling him racist.

To be clear Morrissey is not racist, and only a twit could make such an accusation. Nonetheless I thought "Oh no, he's gonna think I'm comparing him to Hitler" - I mean he's a vegetarian, artistic and very charismatic but it's not a comparison I imagine he'd welcome. I began to flounder and back-pedal, trying to distance myself from my words even as they tumbled from my mouth, clarifying and mitigating like a drowning Hugh Grant. When I finished blathering Morrissey gave a world-weary sigh and turned to the other two gents - "Of course... this is what Russell does for a living" he said.

Guardian column

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Deano- A Toon Target?

Kevin Keegan has earmarked West Ham United striker Dean Ashton as a potential transfer target, according to the latest transfer rumour in the Telegraph. Vicki Hodges insists the Newcastle manager is yet to make an official bid for the 24-year-old but is set to test the waters with an opening offer of £7 million. West Ham are likely to reject such an approach for Ashton who remains one of their most valuable assets (so why offer less than the club paid for him then?!) despite being beset by injury problems over the past two seasons.

Ashton has been frustrated at his limited time spent on the pitch when he has been fit and has led to Alan Curbishley denying rumours of a fall out between the two earlier this month. Curbishley has erred on the side of caution with Ashton and allowed the former Norwich striker time to recover from a knee injury which saw him sidelined for six weeks of the season. He also missed the 1-1 Premier League draw at Manchester City on Sunday, with a back injury according to the club. Ashton, though, is eager to get his career back on track with a view to establishing himself in Fabio Capello's plans for England.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Wordsmith Keeper

The Sunday Times has a nice interview with Robert Green in which the cultured goalkeeper reveals his journalism ambitions...

He writes for a national newspaper but doesn’t read any, plays football at the highest level but prefers cricket and rugby. Goalkeepers have always been a breed apart, but Robert Green, of West Ham and England, is more singular than most suggests Joe Lovejoy. This 28-year-old son of a retired hospital consultant gained 10 GCSEs, studied law and psychology and thought twice before giving up his studies for the professional career that started at Norwich City a decade ago.

Green is blessed [some managers would say cursed] with an inquiring mind, and has a thirst for knowledge that extends well beyond the confines of his 18-yard box. The success of the articles he writes for The Independent [without the aid of a “ghost”] has encouraged him to believe that he could contribute more on a broader range of subjects, and Eamon Dunphy may soon have a serious rival as football’s gift to journalism.

In the meantime, that inquisitive nature has been exercised by the way he was jettisoned by England between the end of last season and the start of this one, during which time nobody played a game, and by how Steve McClaren could be daft enough to throw Scott Carson in at the deep end for England’s key match in the failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.

Green, currently in the form of his life, hopes for a recall from Fabio Capello for the friendly at home to Switzerland on February 6, but has learnt the hard way not to take such things for granted. The man for whom West Ham paid Norwich £2m in August 2006 is good value on any number of subjects, from the goalkeeper’s strange lot to the vagaries of the English education system and Sven-Göran Eriksson’s managerial merits.

As a starting point, however, we went for his forays into the broadsheet press. “I was trying to find something to occupy my mind outside of football,” he explained. “For a couple of nights before a game, I’d be sat at home, not doing a lot, and I felt the need to fill that space. I tried a few pieces online for The Sun last season, it seemed to go well, and my agent spoke to different papers about it to test the water. The Independent liked what I’d done and gave me a go.”

From his earliest days, at Norwich, football was never enough. “While I was up there,” he says, “I went to night school to do a couple of A-levels and studied psychology for a year and law for a year. A footballer’s job stimulates you a lot physically, but not mentally. It’s very much tunnel vision. There’s no real spectrum of life - not real life, anyway - and it’s good to have something else to focus on.”

Green was not academically minded at school. “I went to the local comprehensive in Guildford, nothing special,” he says. “It seems to me you’re either in a very good school, where you’re encouraged to learn, or you’re not. Mine didn’t really help me. A couple of my mates now teach in places where it’s more a matter of crowd control than education, and I think my experience came into that category. It has taken time for me to find education my own way.”

He enjoyed other sports - cricket (as a batsman), rugby union (at fly-half) and golf (his handicap a bandit’s 14).

“We had a good rugby team at school,” he says. “I was the smallest of the backs [at 6ft 3in], we had a team of giants and I used to kick for the corners and let the other lads beat up the opposition.” As a goalkeeper, he was still largely reliant on others for protection, and the unique responsibilities of the position weighed heavily.

“When I first started with Norwich, I found it very stressful, going out on the pitch knowing that if I made a mistake it would cost us,” he says. “It wasn’t uncommon for me to be sick before a game, I found the pressure unbearable. Fortunately, with experience you learn how to deal with it better. The way I do it is not to read the papers or watch TV coverage. I leave it to my dad [Steve] to give me a detailed appraisal of anything I’ve written.”

Alan Curbishley’s appraisal of Green’s work on the field is unequivocal. “Rob came out of the England squad with an injury and has done nothing wrong since,” the West Ham manager says. “He deserves to be picked again.” The goalkeeper had been key to the Hammers’ great escape last season, when they won seven of their last nine games to avoid relegation. The pick of those results were 1-0 victories away to Arsenal and Manchester United, when Green was man of the match on each occasion. Curbishley rated him “11 out of 10” for his heroics at the Emirates, where Arsenal had 35 goal attempts on target.

It was, and still is, Green says, the best performance of his career. After clambering out of the grave they had dug for themselves, the “Bubbles” club are progressing nicely this season, a top10 finish well within their compass. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, 11 or 12 at one time, but we’ve coped well,” says Green. “The important thing is that the make-up of the defence has been consistent. Matthew Upson, George McCartney and Lucas Neill have played nearly every game, with Anton Ferdinand or Danny Gabbidon making up the back four. That unit has been the foundation of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve not been gluttons as far as scoring goals is concerned, but we’ve managed to keep it tight, especially away from home. Consistency in availability and selection has been a massive factor, and the good results we’ve had breed confidence.

“We’re not the crisis club this time, the ship has a steadier feel, and we’re definitely moving in the right direction, although we had a massive disappointment last Wednesday, when we went out of the FA Cup [at Manchester City] after playing pretty well. It wasn’t the most entertaining of matches, but we were the away side, playing against a team that haven’t lost at home all season, and we were left asking, ‘How many chances do we need to win a game?’ We had them, but unfortunately we didn’t take them. I hardly had to make any saves compared to Joe Hart.

“Now we’re playing them again in the league [at Eastlands today], and we can take confidence from the way the game went on Wednesday. We know we can create chances against them, and that they can be beaten at home.”

Green had not been surprised by City’s resurgence under Eriksson. “Not at all,” he says. “I couldn’t name a club where he’s failed. We spent £25m on players here during the summer, but we recouped £20m of that from sales. Sven has spent £45m. He’s spent it well, he knows good players, but the point is he has had the backing. At Lazio he won Serie A, spending a lot of money. If a club is lucky enough to have a lot of money and needs a manager to build a team, he’s your man.”

Mention of Eriksson brought us on to Green’s experience with England, 45 minutes of playing time in four years in and around the squad. “Sven gave me my cap, as a second-half substitute against Colombia in the United States [in May 2005], then I was going to the World Cup in Germany until I played for the B team at Reading [against Belarus] and ruptured my groin after about three minutes [having come on at half-time].” Carson went to the World Cup instead, and Green has been cast aside.

“I thought it was crazy to put Scott in against Croatia at Wembley,” he says. “Paul Robinson hadn’t been playing well, but if there was a time and a place to replace him, that certainly wasn’t it. The right thing to do was to give him [Carson] experience in a friendly to feel his way in. You shouldn’t get thrown in like that for England’s biggest match for two years. It was too much to ask of anybody.

“I don’t want to make excuses, but part of our problem is that every time England play, it's a must-win game in the eyes of the media and the public. Because of that pressure, the manager is going to pick his first-choice keeper every time, which is counter-productive in that the No 2 gets no experience and therefore is never ready. I’ve been part of the England set-up for 30 matches now and I’ve played for 45 minutes. You’d think a keeper who has been around the squad for four years would have played more than half a game.

“I was involved last June, for the Brazil and Estonia matches, but didn’t take any part, then we had a friendly in August [at home to Germany] and I was dropped for David James, without playing. How I got worse and ‘Jamo’ got better over the course of the summer is anybody’s guess. It did seem odd, and I’ve not been involved since.

“If I play the next game for England, it will be my biggest achievement in football, and I’d love to do it, but after everything that’s happened you learn to take nothing for granted. What’s the point getting upset over it? I’m doing everything I can. For the past year I’ve played better than ever before.

“I had a sports psychologist at Norwich who had a saying: ‘You can’t control the uncontrollable,’ and I can’t control the England thing. What I can control is playing as well as I can for West Ham and staying in the team here, keeping out Richard Wright and Jim Walker. If that gets me into the squad, then great, but the be-all and end-all is that I don’t have the final say there.

Don’t get me wrong, I do want it, I’d run to Wembley - do anything - to be in the side, and maybe things will be different under a new manager.”

The wordsmith keeper’s match report would be interesting.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Cockney Moses

If Keegan's a messiah I want the cockney Moses
By Russell Brand

The Dionysian versus the Apollonian, romanticism versus pragmatism, forever we oscillate and vie between these two contrasting ideas. A wise man once remarked to me that the Third Reich was an example of what happens when you put an artist in a position of power; although many of Hitler's atrocities were committed as a result of him being a right bastard as opposed to an artist - there's nothing in pointillism that suggests that genocide would be worthwhile.

I suppose what he was saying was that a personality whose mind is governed by poetic ideas like Bavarian myth and the operas of Wagner oughtn't be put in charge of foreign policy and defence because they'll pursue impractical objectives to achieve, in this case misguided, romantic ends.

Kevin Keegan's reappointment as Geordie messiah made me reflect on this theory. Now, I'm right behind any second coming, it appeals to me, a Geordie messiah, why stop there? Let's have Harry Redknapp as a cockney Moses and Martin O'Neill as an Ulster Herod. I am enthralled by narrative and Keegan's return is a great story; he's an intriguing character who, I gather, is a little embittered about the way he's been handled by the English press and feels he has scores to settle.

I was initially baffled when I heard the news but on reflection it makes perfect sense particularly if regarded as an insular romance between the people of Newcastle and Keegan rather than a managerial decision made by a massive franchise. Because logically, surely, this doesn't add up. When Keegan took Toon on its euphoric romp from the foot of division one to the summit of the Premier League the footballing landscape was very different. Newcastle were loaded and had few rivals in terms of spending power, that coupled with Kev's then untarnished ebullience was sufficient to bring them tantalisingly close to glory.

But if you look at the top flight now can one really envisage Keegan outsmarting teams bossed by David Moyes, Juande Ramos, Mark Hughes, not to mention the big four and Cockney Moses and Ulster Herod? I suppose when you're in love such thing cease to be relevant.

"He's got a suspect temperament." "Oh I know but look at his hair." "He struggles tactically with defence." "Yeah, but when he looks into my eyes I feel like I'm the only person on earth." "He makes emotional decisions then walks away when he feels the heat." "Look, just fuck off will you, I love him."

For Newcastle fans those feted few seasons under Keegan still have the power of transcendental love, an idyllic holiday away from the glum drudgery of under-achievement and of course they will once more be guaranteed cavalier, adventurous football - he is the anti-Allardyce. Perhaps it's not for us to try to understand the Geordies and their rose-tinted fetish of the admittedly adorable miner's son - few outside of east London will appreciate the adulation felt for "vicious looking" Julian Dicks, and Robbie Fowler could probably push an old lady in a wheelchair into the Mersey without relinquishing his status as "God".

In a sport increasingly compromised for capitalist ends perhaps we should celebrate this tiny triumph of the heart over the head, while Liverpool's beloved Rafael Benìtez looks like he's about to be "Jolled" good and proper by a board that clearly don't respect the feelings of the Kop. The Toon army is being heard.

To me it seems that Keegan can but fail, but what the bloody hell do I know, I'm no expert and I don't support Newcastle but as a fan of football and romance I should be cock-a-hoop at this recalcitrant disregard for reason.

Perhaps Alan Shearer will join as his No2; they could commence each home match with a Women in Love-style nude wrestle in the centre circle while Michael Owen blows cocaine into their anuses. Why not? It'll be a bonding experience like no other.

Keegan's appointment is romantic rather than pragmatic but does that make it wrong? I suppose the correct answer is "who cares?" It's made thousands of people incredibly happy and unless he's had a massive change in philosophical direction in the interim period the consequences are unlikely to be as horrifically profound as Hitler's elevation. Just to be clear: Keegan good, Hitler bad.

Guardian column

Friday, 18 January 2008

Dailly Dallies

Christian Dailly will spend the next 24 hours weighing up a loan move to Rangers but he has indicated to the club that he is loath to uproot his family from their London home in order to come back to Scotland. Rangers, in the meantime, have told the West Ham United defender that their intention is purely to make the arrangement a four-month deal, and that the club does not wish him to organise a full-scale relocation out of London. "A lot of this talk about Christian is premature," Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, said yesterday. "Really, we’ve embarked on a sounding-out exercise with Christian, but no offer has been put to him yet. If nothing comes of it, fine, we’ll go with what we’ve got." Smith sees Dailly as one of a number of possible options to cover for Ugo Ehiogu, who has completed a move to Sheffield United.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Upson Eyes England

Matthew Upson is desperate to make up for lost time by forcing himself into the mind of England manager Fabio Capello, starting with West Ham's FA Cup third round replay against Manchester City at Eastlands tonight. Upson picked up seven caps between May 2003 and November 2004 and was named on standby for Euro 2004. But the 28-year-old has not been considered for international duty since and is welcoming the Italian's fresh outlook.

The centre-half insists he is in the form of his life and is determined to show Capello what he can do against Sven-Goran Eriksson's City side, who drew 0-0 at Upton Park 11 days ago. "I've got personal goals I want to get to and international honours is certainly on that list," Upson said. "It's a level playing field now, and Capello appears to be a manager who will take everything at face value. He seems to go on form, so it would be nice to get a fresh look and emphasis on the set-up. I think my form's been very consistent and I'm working as hard as I've ever worked. I'm as focused as I've ever been."

Upson is slightly unfortunate that the centre-back position is one of the few in which England are well stocked, but the former Arsenal and Birmingham City man is unfazed by the competition. "It would just make my achievement even greater if I do get into the squad, so whether or not we've got a lot of good centre-halves it's up to me to produce my best form and be as good as everyone else," he explained.

Elsewhere, West Ham striker Carlton Cole admits that victory, with the winner travelling to Sheffield United in the fourth round, could transform the season of Alan Curbishley's mid-table side. "The next game is going to be vital for us and the club as a whole," Cole said. "It will give everyone a boost."

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Don't Let Harry Head North

Don't let Harry head north for shooting practice
By Russell Brand

I'm on the Isle of Wight caught up in the seductive nostalgia of umpteen childhood jaunts, avoiding paparazzi (two of them, the same two - I can see how Britney Spears has got entangled with one, the proximity begins to feel like intimacy; I almost invited one of them into my bath this morning out of a combination of curiosity and pity) and to tell you the truth nobody reminded me to write this article until moments before the deadline when I was off shooting clays with my chums.

Ah, the power of the establishment. Whilst you may deride it and attack it from the foothills prior to ascent, on arrival at the summit it is very difficult to eschew the baubles and the Barbour. That is why the revolution will be tricky - it takes great discipline not to check your principles at the door of the Groucho and allow your ideals to be neutered by pina coladas and fellatio.

Big Sam Allardyce became the eighth casualty of a particularly bloodthirsty season. I don't recall so many managers having fallen so early on before and Sam was remarkably philosophical, saying there's little point in bitterness or regret in these situations and that's true, but it must be challenging to stifle those instincts regardless of the pay-off.

He was ever Freddy Shepherd's appointment so I suppose he was vulnerable as soon as Mike Ashley took over but they do seem a bit trigger happy up on Tyneside; if I'd behaved with such profligate abandon whilst cracking off clay pigeons I'd've felled two photographers and perhaps an instructor to boot as oppose to the breathtaking display of marksmanship that have led to me becoming something of a local hero and, possibly, if the legislation can get through before the ferry departs, mayor. All power ought be wielded in a considered and responsible manner.

Allardyce surely deserved a season, but I suppose if you own a football club that you've loved since childhood and are not happy with the fashion in which it's being run you must act. Like in a marriage, though that's not an analogy that I can personally validate so perhaps, more reasonably, a holiday.

If you go on holiday with a lover and after the first night you realise that you, in point of fact, despise your companion; the way they eat, address waiters and are cruel to the street cats of Lyndos, perhaps it's prudent to give them the old heave ho' and try your luck with a chamber maid. Or in this case Harry Redknapp.

I've said before in this column that I love Harry, I think he was great at West Ham and has done wonderful work at Portsmouth but most importantly is the most amusing manager working in top-flight football.

Once, on Goals on Sunday where he guested with Paul Merson he told an anecdote of Merson's early career at Fratton Park and the special attention granted to gifted players. As is well-publicised, Merson had problems with addiction relating to gambling and alcohol and during one traumatic period he requested some time off to go to Tony Adams' addiction clinic.

Harry consented acknowledging that Merson would benefit from the treatment. When Redknapp relayed this story on telly he went: "Merse came to me saying can I have some time off to go to Tony's clinic cos I'm having a bit of trouble with the booze, the gambling and the birds..." Merson interrupted here, saying: "Not the birds Harry, I was still married then, remember?"

Harry cared not a jot that his candour had retrospectively devalued Merson's marriage and blithely ignored his former charge's appealing looks. "Anyway I give him the time off then I got a phone call from a mate, saying 'I'm in Barbados, I've just seen Paul Merson on the beach'. I goes 'No. Merson's in Tony Adams' clinic' - turns out he was lying but he came back the next week and scored twice."

The upbeat ending of the yarn was somewhat lost on Merson as he was now just staring blankly into camera having been off-handedly outed as a philanderer in a story meant to illustrate his wayward talent.

Some say Redknapp deserves a big stage on which to display his under-appreciated skill. But he is adored at Pompey and will be forever loved in East London and, whilst Newcastle are a fantastic club with incredible supporters, I don't think their administrators deserve a great manager like Harry.

Guardian column

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Thinking Of Sting

Watching Arsenal, thinking of Sting and Trudie
By Russell Brand

Two thousand and eight then. We're now so far into the future that Kubrick's space vision looks like a turgid and unambitious "what the butler saw". I suffered a bit of football fatigue over the holidays as well as that vomiting craze that swept the nation like jacks or pogs - or saying "whaaasssuuuup" but with such commitment that the utterance becomes projectile.

I feel personally aggrieved by Liverpool's failure to stay with the pace, I really thought this might be their year; to kids growing up now The Reds will be like United were when I was a lad - a team for whom there is an incomprehensible reverence that have never delivered a title in their lifetime. I suppose they have at least triumphed in the watered-down, hyped-up Champions League but the Scousers demand domestic success from their side and now it increasingly seems that will not be under Benítez.

I did not go to Upton Park for West Ham's magnificent victory against Manchester United and was in fact so delirious with my Scrooge flu that I was oblivious to the event until baffled and congratulatory texts began to flood in. I was at the Emirates on New Year's Day, however, where The Hammers played like a side who felt like they'd done enough work for two matches in their previous encounter - which is a mentality I often employ sexually after the euphoria of the debut has reached its giddy climax, often secretly making eye contact with my cat as my co-participant ponders the whereabouts of the former shaman who now half-heartedly writhes, more for exercise than pleasure.

Arsenal move with the fluidity, grace and purpose of a couple who remain very much in love, the kind of yogic coitus that I like to think Sting and Trudie Styler have. Arsenal pass confidently from deep positions and are unencumbered by needless flair but make the functional aesthetically titillating - again how I imagine Sting and Trudie.

I don't want to give the impression that I give undue attention to the private lovemaking of Gordon Sumner and his missus, it's just a convenient analogy. I've never pondered it alone, biting my lower lip, eyes rolling skyward as I twitch out ribbons of guilty glee. I don't put on that "fields of barley" record and pretend to be him while canoodling with a porcelain sex doll - I don't think you can even get porcelain sex dolls - which is a prohibition of choice that will, surely, ultimately lead to the collapse of consumerism as the anaesthetic of the west.

I went to the Arsenal game with lifelong Gooner Matt Lucas. I don't often attend away games and even as we approached the magnificent arena the angst of unfamiliarity was all about me. The people drinking outside the pubs on the Blackstock Road were not of my fraternity; lacking there was the bonhomie of the frequently defeated, replaced instead by a peculiar sense of assurance; men louchely swilled back booze safe in the knowledge that they were not about to witness a bout of lazy humiliation.

It was a world away from the gallows good will of Green Street where a lunatic pervasion of detached joy prevails, revellers indifferently jig and swirl, regardless of the likelihood of 90 minutes of torture, like a grinning gin-bleached hag merrily giving suck to a stiff blue tot.

When Arsenal scored twice, so quickly that the whistle's echo could still be detected, Matt apologised as if Arsenal's dominance were bad manners and he'd failed in his duty as a host. I assured him that he couldn't be held responsible for his team's superiority and spent the rest of the game admiring the architecture and listening to the away support's relentlessly amusing chants with fellow Hammer and companion that day James Corden.

My favourite was "sit down if you love Tottenham" - there is little standing at the Emirates so by the song's clever logic the home fans were tacitly supporting their hated foes. Their riposte was quite good - "You need more foreigners" - but all were united in the minute's silence that preceded the match to mark the sad death of Motherwell's captain, Phil O'Donnell, a reminder that, whilst pithy, Shankly's maxim was ever an empty witticism.

Guardian column

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