Thursday, 31 July 2008

I Think, Therefore I Am (A Goalkeeper)

As with folded arms I leant back against the left goalpost, I enjoyed the luxury of closing my eyes, and thus I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind drizzle on my face and hear, in the distance, the broken sounds of the game, and think of myself as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise, composing my verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my team-mates- Vladimir Nabokov

There are stories emerging from the Czech Republic this morning that goalkeeper Jan Lastuvka will finally be joining West Ham United on loan for the forthcoming season, with a further option to make the transfer permanent. The 26-year-old international reportedly informed that a deal had been been agreed between United and his current club, Ukrainian side Shaktar Donetsk after complications had stymied negotiations last week. The proposed deal originally stalled when Donetsk unexpectedly raised their demands but the goalkeeper is now due to fly into London tomorrow to undergo a medical before rubber-stamping his return to the Premier League. Lastuvka served a previous spell on loan at Fulham in 2006 and last season was spent with VfL Bochum of the Bundesliga. The German side, however, declined to meet Shaktar's £2million asking price.

"An agreement was reached; if there is no problem with the medical, I will join West Ham," said Lastuvka, who admitted he was excited by the opportunity to work with Ludo Miklosko, United's former Czech international goalkeeper coach. "I hope everything will be fine. I am eager for the experience to train under Ludek Miklosko. The Premier League is the best league in the world, so I would like to fight for a chance." Lastuvka will play understudy to United number one Robert Green and effectively ends the search for a back-up keeper that has troubled the Hammers since Richard Wright made it clear that he wanted to leave the club at the end of last season. Wright, of course, eventually departed to join Championship outfit Ipswich Town earlier this month.

Lastuvka, like his new mentor Miklosko, made his name at Banik Ostrava in the Czech Republic. He now follows the same path to Upton Park where there is already one Czech keeper in residence in the form 18 years old Marek Stech. The highly rated youngster recently penned a new 5 year contract with United and has been getting a chance to impress in pre-season friendlies. It is hoped that the arrival of compatriot Lastuvka will only help Stech's development.

Interestingly, Lastuvka is a former philosophy student and is just one of many goalkeepers who have united those two seemingly disparate disciplines. Albert Camus, the renowned existentialist, claimed that all he learnt most surely about the obligations of men he learnt whilst playing sport. Playing in goal for Racing Universitaire offered him time and space to contemplate the nature of being, meaning and truth. Goalkeepers are both part of, and apart from, their team, perfectly positioned for observation, detachment and occasional bouts of intense involvement. The goalkeeper has a long view, often the longest view of any member to the team. They tend to be counter-intuitive - after all, keepers are the only ones playing with their hands in a game called football, the only ones playing in a different kit in a team game, the only ones who do not need pace and stamina so much as focus and patience. They are often loners, thinkers who are always a slip away from catastrophe. Camus, Vladimir Nabokov, the last Pope (a dead ringer for Ron Greenwood, incidentally) and Che Guevara all guarded the goal. Which leads to another important question: does the philosopher become a goalkeeper or does the goalkeeper become a philosopher? After all, who has more time to think than the goalie?

Anyway, all the above serves only to allow for the greatest (and not strictly related) football/philosophy comic crossover of all time...

Friday, 25 July 2008

Major League Advancements

West Ham United were edged out in a five-goal thriller against the MLS All-Stars at a packed BMO Field in Toronto last night, although you would never have guessed by looking at a smiling Alan Curbishley after the game. Dean Ashton fired the first of his two goals midway through the first half only for Christian Gomez to equalize almost immediately. Veteran Mexican playmaker Blanco then struck a sublime goal just before half-time when he tricked his way into the penalty area. Although Ashton levelled matters in the 67th minute with a deflected long-range shot, Dwayne De Rosario won it with a penalty soon afterwards following a clumsy challenge from Lucas Neill.

The match was a welcome step up for Alan Curbishley's men after the 4-2 and 3-1 wins against Hampton and Richmond Borough and Columbus Crew respectively in the first two matches of pre-season. As well as Ashton's strikes, there were numerous positives. Matthew Etherington and a combative Luis Boa Morte both made encouraging returns to action, while Julien Faubert looked very bright in flashes and Scott Parker was industrious thoughout as he marshalled the midfield. The night will also be remembered by Joe Widdowson, with the 19-year-old defender marking David Beckham and proving that he might just be the capable back-up to George McCartney that was missing all last season.

Alan Curbishley cut a satisfied figure after saw the game as a vital step towards the new season. "I would like to congratulate the MLS team on their victory. For everyone concerned it has been a success," he said. "Some goals scored, chances created - it could have been a bit more of a scoreline but everybody came away with something. We are two weeks into a six-week programme of pre-season and we needed the fitness work. We certainly got that. It was a good evening and I think everybody can be pleased with their efforts."

Curbishley has been able to cast a close eye over his charges on the trip along with his backroom staff and has been impressed with what he has seen in Columbus and Toronto. "We are looking that much sharper than we did this time last year when we were doing pre-season," he noted. "Obviously the teams that come from Europe to play this game will face the same problems. It is in the start of our pre-season so it is a little bit difficult. Nevertheless we were delighted to be invited. We knew our profile in America and Canada was high and hopefully it has got a bit bigger. We have enjoyed our week here. We have been well looked after and everybody has been fantastic to us. Anyone who has come to the game will have enjoyed it ... The goals that the MLS scored were terrific. They showed that they can compete. That was the big thing. The reason for the game is for the MLS to show off their riches and their talent, they have done that. We are really pleased that we have been invited and it will be a big memory for everybody at West Ham."

The team will travel back to England on Friday night, after a community session at the BMO Field, and then have some welcome rest before a busy schedule resumes next week. When the players return they will be beneficiaries of a significantly increased level of expertise in the key areas of sports science and medicine. An official statement released by the Club today announced widespread investment in facilities and the arrival of renowned experts such as chief medical officer Nikos Tzouroudis, who has worked for several leading European clubs including Panathinakos in his native Greece, Fiorentina, Verona and Steaua Bucharest. His role will be to take a strategic overview of operations, while other recruits include a leading Serie A osteopath in Marco Cesarini, who has considerable contacts, and rehabilitation physiotherapist Giorgio Gasparini, who is used to working one-on-one with elite players such as World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro and Filippo Inzaghi.

The move was prompted by concerns at Board and managerial level about the number of injuries and the recurrence of certain conditions among the first-team squad. As a result, an independent study was commissioned from the renowned Sports Performance Assessment and Rehabilitation Centre at Roehampton University, which looked into the club's existing operations. Consideration of that report's findings and other research made a decision to improve the club's medical set-up by augmenting the significant expertise and experience already offered by existing staff, a priority. It is stated that the imminent purchase of a new training ground, installing relevant state of the art equipment at the existing site and, most significantly, boosting the number of sports science and medical staff will all help to address these fitness issues.

West Ham United CEO Scott Duxbury said: "The Board and manager have taken these decisive steps to ensure the club has the very best support in place for the entire coaching and playing staff. We sought the best independent advice and over recent months have been looking at home and across the continent for the leading experts in the field. I am delighted we have been able to strengthen our existing operation in this way and am confident the benefits will be considerable."

Thursday, 24 July 2008

West Ham United Takes On The World

Toronto is the centre of the sporting world right now as David Beckham and the MLS All-stars, NBA great Steve Nash, elite golfer Mike Weir at Glen Abbey and tennis masters Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the Rogers Cup have all converged on the city. With major broadcasters and leading media outlets following closely in their collective wake, there seems to be a camera crew or press photographer at every turn - with autograph hunters not far behind. As West Ham United fans roll in to town to take place among an expected capacity crowd at the BMO Field, there is already plenty of excitement ahead of tonight's kick-off. "We have heard about the [passion of the] Toronto fans and we saw a bit of it yesterday so we are looking forward to it," explained Alan Curbishley. "Our fans get behind the team as well so we are looking forward to it. No matter how many games you play and how experienced you are this is a new experience for us. We have really enjoyed the week so far and would like to finish it with a result against the MLS."

Curbishley and the players are certainly relishing the spotlight. Having had an afternoon off on Tuesday to take in some of the sporting sights, along with a trip to Niagara Falls and even an Eagles concert, the squad are now ready to become the main attraction themselves. "Ever since the game was programmed in, the feedback has been wait until you get to Toronto....," said the manager. "It is a sporting city and we have found that out in the last couple of days with so many events going on. The atmosphere around the city at the moment is second to none."

Away from the media glare the team has been hard at work as the 22 players and coaching team, including Tony Carr and his academy staff, have reportedly been "getting down to business" in the Canadian city. Monday afternoon saw a first work-out at the BMO Field, while on Tuesday morning everyone decamped to Ontario Soccer Centre for a more extensive workout. Luis Boa Morte and Matthew Etherington both stepped up their sessions as they look for a first pre-season appearance, while the club's strengthening and conditioning coaches have also been busy with supplementary gym sessions to complement the work out on the training pitches.

Lucas Neill said: "We are here for hard work and we have to look at the bigger picture. We have a season to be preparing for. We worked hard on Tuesday and on Wednesday worked harder than we normally would leading up to a big game. Today we will have the day off waiting for the game. We are all really excited. It is the biggest and best players in America and we are getting to take them on in what is a really well promoted event. We are just privileged to be part of it." Speaking on the official site, Neill added: "It will be great to test ourselves so early in the pre-season with a sold-out crowd against all the best players in North America live on TV to millions all over the world. What more could you ask for? It is the kind of game that excites every player. We have got the nucleus of the team that we wanted to play last year and it never happened. With Scott Parker, Julien Faubert and Craig Bellamy back the pace and the threat is there. These guys are starting to look fit and sharp and with three or four more weekends to go before the first game I am really excited about what could possibly be a very good season."

With the news from back home that Kieron Dyer has returned to full training, George McCartney has agreed a new five-year contract and Valon Behrami has finally signed after weeks of speculation, the players in Toronto are now in upbeat mood for the challenge ahead. Neill revealed: "We are really delighted to be here and the football exposure we are going to get is great. We didn't realise how many West Ham fans there are over here which is pleasing and obviously Major League Soccer is trying to take off. You can see it is working by the crowds coming out to see us. There is a lot of work to do but the more times high-profile teams from England and all over the world come and play the bigger soccer is going to get."

The skipper has led the way with players signing autographs and posing for pictures after each session. It has been open to the media all week and Neill was joined by Anton Ferdinand, Scott Parker and Dean Ashton in talking to broadcasters and press from the US and Mexico, as well as Canada. Ashton, in particular, believes Major League Soccer is ready to go from strength to strength with the Beckham factor a huge plus for the game in North America. "David Beckham coming over here has made the MLS a lot bigger in England so everyone is talking about it and younger players want to come over now," stated the United striker. "It is a great lifestyle and the football is getting better and better all the time. The feedback from all the players back to England is that it is an upcoming league and somewhere to be." When asked if he felt the notion of an All-Star game was an idea that could catch on back in England given the rivalries between teams, he added: "I can't see why something like that can't be good over in England. I think it is a great event and we are definitely all looking forward to it. I don't see why not, it is a great concept - especially for all the fans to see all their best players together in one team. I don't see why not but whether it will happen is another matter."

After finishing working out with his teammates yesterday in rainy conditions that one British reporter quipped "must have reminded him of his days back in England," David Beckham entered the interview room clogged with reporters, cameras and microphones in reflective mood. The England international and Los Angeles Galaxy captain was born and raised in East London and, although growing up a fan of Manchester United, many of his friends and neighbours were Hammers fanatics. For Beckham, the prospect of facing West Ham United inevitably brings back a lot of memories. "It’s great, being an East End boy, playing against West Ham so many times for Manchester United, and also scoring against West Ham, which didn’t go down well with a few friends," he confessed. "It’s always nice to play against a quality team. They’re a team that’s got some good players, they’re working toward the start of the Premiership. Of course, it’s great to play against good opposition and it will be a tough game. We’re looking forward to that. You always want to play against good players and good teams and we’re up against that.”

Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan has enjoyed an amazing first half to the season in which he’s scored 12 goals and added seven assists in just 14 games played. The U.S. international stole a point for Los Angeles last weekend with a late goal and has been the subject of transfer rumors to England during the build up to this game. He expects Beckham will have plenty to play for against West Ham United. "My guess is he’s going to take it very seriously," Donovan said. "He usually does. He knows that this league is better than people give it credit for, especially in England." Beckham’s teammates are just as eager to prove their league’s superiority. "You want to show how good the players are in this league and how good the standard is," said Toronto FC defender Jim Brennan, the lone All-Star representative for the host team.

Knee and ankle injuries limited Beckham to just five league games for the Galaxy last season. He’s scored five goals in 11 league appearances this season, and believes the standard of play has been improving. "It’s a higher level than everyone thinks" Beckham said. "I realized that when I came here, because I had a lot of time, especially last season, to just sit and watch the games. Especially this year, the level of play has increased." According to MLS commissioner Don Gerber, attendance is up 1%, ESPN viewership 20% and Univision ratings 10% from this point a year ago- just about the time Beckham came into the league. "Since I've been here, a couple of new stadiums have gone up, attendance has gone up and the level of play has gone up," Beckham said. "It's a higher level than many thought."

Conscious he is carrying the weight of a league on his shoulders, Beckham appears ready to embrace the challenge. "It would have been nice to go up and see Federer (play) but we have a big game to prepare for," he revealed, effortlessly stoking up the MLS PR machine. "The fans are a big part of MLS, especially in Toronto," he said. "The fans in Toronto give their team great support. They are special." The Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder was slated to make his MLS regular season debut in the Ontario capital last year, but an ankle injury prevented the former England captain from taking to the field. Earlier this season, Beckham missed the Galaxy's visit to Toronto because he was away on national team duty, but he will line up alongside the league's best players against West Ham United. "I want to be involved in the league as much as possible and I think the all-star game is great. It's great for the league and I'm really looking forward to it," the Englishman enthused.

Of course, Beckham isn't the only top star in town. Tonight's game will have a distinctive Canadian flavour thanks to the presence of Toronto FC defender Jim Brennan (a Toronto native), and midfielder Dwayne De Rosario (from Scarborough, Ont.) and goalkeeper Pat Onstad (from Vancouver) of the Houston Dynamo. The Canadians have already seen action this week — Brennan in a Canadian Champions league contest on Tuesday, De Roario and Onstad in a regular-season contest on Wednesday — which means they don't come into the all-star game fresh and rested. Still, all-star coach Steve Nicol guaranteed they would all play against West Ham. "Certainly, the three of them are going to see action at some stage of the game, you can be sure of that." Brennan called it "a privilege" to be selected and said he couldn't pick a better place to play in his first all-star game than his hometown. "It carries special meaning for me representing the home team in our own stadium," said the defender. "I know the crowd is going to be fantastic, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Onstad's only previous all-star appearance came in 2004, and the veteran goalkeeper is glad to be back because it's affirmation that he's still at the top of his game. "I take a great deal of pride in being named to the team, especially as the oldest player in the league," said Onstad, who turned 40 this past January. "And of course, I think it's great that the game will have a healthy dose of Canadian representation," added the veteran shot-stopper. As for De Rosario, this year will mark his third consecutive all-star appearance, but the 30-year-old is especially looking forward to representing Canada in one of the league's marquee games on Canadian soil. "It's definitely an honour to be named to the team, definitely a thrill, and definitely a highlight of my career," admitted De Rosario. "I grew up just outside of Toronto, so be to be able to come back to my hometown and play in front of my family and friends in such an important game, it's something I've dreamed about."

The MLS All-Stars beat Mexico’s Guadalajara 3-1 in 2003 and defeated Celtic 2-0 last summer. In the intervening years they routed Fulham 4-1 and edged past Chelsea the following year with the only goal of a competitive encounter. Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad hopes they can extend the winning streak. "We're excited to showcase what the MLS is all about, and these last three years we've done it — Chelsea, Celtic, Fulham, those are all good clubs, and to be able to go out there and compete, we take it very seriously," said Conrad, a veteran of four all-star games. Alan Curbishley certainly isn't taking the game lightly. "We looked into it and we know it's a big event for everyone connected with the MLS," he said. "We do realize it's a game everybody looks forward to, and we're looking forward to it as well." The view from the US side is that United will not offer as stiff a test as the one provided by Chelsea, but should be stronger than the Fulham side so decimated three years ago.

You can watch a brief preview of tonight's game here.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Skinny On Behrami

Full name: Valon Behrami
Date of birth: April 19, 1985
Birthplace: Kosovska Mitrovica, Serbia
Nationality: Swiss
2nd nationality: Albanian
EU passport: No
Height: 186 cms
Weight: 78 kgs
Position: Defender/Midfielder [R]
Squad Number: 85
Previous clubs: Stabio, Chiasso, Lugano, Genoa, Verona, Lazio
International debut: October 2005, v France

West Ham United have finally confirmed the signing of the highly regarded Switzerland international Valon Behrami in a £5 million deal from Serie A heavyweights Lazio. According to the official site the versatile performer, who can operate at right-back and across midfield, has already passed a medical and agreed a five-year contract.

Speaking this morning, a delighted Behrami, who will wear the No21 shirt next season, said: "I am very happy at last to be able to sign for West Ham. For me it is a dream come true to play for the club and in the Premier League. I am very much looking forward to becoming part of the team here. After the European Championships, I spoke with West Ham who expressed their interest in me coming here. It was important for me to talk with everyone here and, when I did, I was very pleased to see what they wanted from me and what the plans are now and in the future for the team. It was something that enabled me to make my decision very quickly and now I can't wait to train and play for West Ham."

West Ham United CEO Scott Duxbury said: "We are delighted to have signed Valon. We beat off a lot of interest from other clubs to get him and we are very pleased to now have him here at West Ham United. He is a player who will be a valuable addition to the squad as we aim for a successful season ahead. Valon's signing is also an indication of the club's positive ambitions and shows that, contrary to some reports, we are firmly committed to strengthening the playing staff. There will not be a mass exodus and fans can be assured that we are working hard as always to ensure high-calibre competition in all areas of the team."

Valon Behrami was born April 19, 1985 in Kosovska Mitrovica, Serbia. He came to Switzerland in 1990 as a five-year old, with his father Ragip, his mother Halime and his sister Valentina, aged eight. Prior to the move, the political and economic situation in his home town in northern Kosovo had deteriorated to the point where both parents had lost their jobs, the mother as a secretary, the father as manager of the plastics company Koplast. To offer their children a better future the Behramis finally left for Switzerland, moving to Stabio, a village in the Italian-speaking part of the country. For four long years, their asylum application had been repeatedly rejected until the concerted action of the family's lawyer, the relevant authorities and committees in Bellinzona and the family's entire scholastic and professional environment in southern Ticino finally obtained residence permits.

Looking back, Halime Behrami says: "As a child, running was Valon's favourite pastime – he just never got tired. Even now, he can hardly sit still for a second. He always needs a ball at his feet". As a youngster, Behrami won four regional cross-country titles. Needing other ways to channel his energy he started out playing football with Swiss club sides FC Stabio and FC Chiasso before moving on to FC Lugano in 1996. He made his first-team debut for the Challenge division side six years later and impressed sufficiently during a handful of early appearances to entice Italian sides Genoa and Udinese to enter into a joint ownership deal in the 2003–04 season. He played for Genoa in the Serie B championship and the following season Genoa secured the full rights to the player and loaned him out to Hellas Verona, again in Serie B.

After an impressive season with Hellas Verona, Lazio signed him in the summer of 2005. He quickly found favour with the club's supporters; scoring his first Serie A goal in February 2006 in a 2-1 win at Fiorentina. He rapidly became regarded as one of the Rome-based clubs untouchable players, but a succession of injury problems and contractual wranglings saw Behrami linked with a move away from Stadio Olimpico- with Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Sevilla Hamburg and Bayern Munich known to be among his admirers. In March of this year he etched his name into Lazio folklore with the 92nd minute winning goal against AS Roma in the 'Derby della Capitale'; a goal that effectively ended their rival's challenge for the Scudetto. Last season was an injury troubled campaign which saw Behrami, like most his teammates, struggling for form and fitness. The fact he also played often out of position on the left side of midfield did little to help his cause. Earlier in the year he did make his UEFA Champions League bow in a 2-2 draw at home to Real Madrid.

Behrami was granted Swiss nationality in 2004. He played for U17s, U18s, U19s and U21s before making his full international debut as a substitute in Switzerland's World Cup qualifier at home to France in October 2005. One month later, he scored his adopted country's second goal in their 2-0-playoff win at home to Turkey. During the 2006 World Cup, Behrami suffered a groin injury which put him on the sidelines for the first two group matches. In the third match against Korea Republic, he was substituted late in the game and then did not participate in the loss to Ukraine in the last 16 knockout round of matches. Over the next two years Behrami established himself as a regular on the international scene and he was in the starting eleven for Switzerland in all three matches during the recent UEFA European Football Championship playing a total of 272 minutes.

Despite his regular inclusion, Behrami has developed the reputation of being an outsider within the Swiss squad; something not helped by the language and cultural barriers within the group. With his tattoos (he has a prominant one on his right arm displaying the gothic letters RVHV which stands for Ragip, Valentina, Halime and Valon), frequently-changing haircuts and high profile romance with Italian model girlfriend Elena Bonzanni, Behrami has often been dubbed "Switzerland's David Beckham". Behrami is set to meet his new team-mates for the first time when they return from the North American tour at the weekend.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Economy Class Hammers

There's more than a hint of the Carry On Abroads as West Ham United's 'tour from hell' lurches from one shambolic crisis to the next. The Hammers are due in Canada to play prestigious friendlies against MLS All Stars and Columbus Crew but the players and staff are reportedly fuming after it was revealed the travel travel firm organizing the trip had gone bust. Now the squad is being flown economy class in two separate planes despite being led to believe they would get extra room for the long-haul journey in business class.

An article in today's Sun says United expect to pocket £500,000 from the two games but the players are upset at the new travel arrangements. The MLS told Alan Curbishley they would get business class flights but after the travel firm went under, it all went wrong. After tonight's friendly with non-league Hampton the players will stay overnight at a hotel near Heathrow and tomorrow half the squad fly to Chicago on one scheduled flight, with the remainder flying out hours later. After that nine-hour trip, plus the wait at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, they catch another plane for the three-hour flight to Columbus before facing Crew on Sunday. The following Thursday, the MLS All Star team provide the opposition in Toronto. To add insult to injury, this game will be played on astroturf and many of the players are reluctant to turn out because of injury fears.

There was more unwelcome publicity for the Club when Bobby Zamora unwittingly stoked the rumours of West Ham United's increasingly parlous financial state. Zamora - along with full-back John Paintsil - joined Fulham yesterday in a £6.3million switch from the Hammers. Talking about his move earlier today, he suggested that it was a decision based not upon footballing factors but to ease cash-flow worries within the club. "I got on well with Curbs and I think he liked me as a player. But the clubs agreed a fee and I guess that says something, he said. "Football is a business and selling players is part of that. Will other players also have to leave? Possibly yes. I don’t really know the ins and outs of what the club needs to do but it is a possibility. I understand that they need the money but how much is anyone’s guess. It was a lot of money that Fulham paid. I had a lot of great times at West Ham and I love the club to bits but I have had to turn another page now. West Ham are my club and always will be but they needed the money and that’s part and parcel of football nowadays."

As if to assuage growing fears swirling around Upton Park , a 'senior club source' let it be known to the BBC that there are plans to buy new players this summer despite a desire to trim the 42-man squad to a more manageable 26 or 27 players. "We effectively have four teams on the payroll - that is far too big a squad," stated the insider. "We will be signing players and have specific requirements. We don't have to sell before we buy necessarily." West Ham United have one of the biggest first-team squads in the Premier League and a wage bill approaching £50 million a year. Chairman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson seems determined to make the club "self sustaining" and has made trimming salaries a key aim for manager Alan Curbishley and chief executive Scott Duxbury this summer.

There has also been a focus on improving training and medical facilities in an attempt to improve the team's record with injuries. Several new appointments have been made to the medical staff and the club is reportedly in the final stages of purchasing land for a new training complex in Romford, Essex. "We are trying to make the best of the know-how and expertise that we have at the club," the source said. "The aim is to have first-class medical and training facilities, to rival those at the biggest European clubs. At best, we managed to field six or seven of our first team at any one time last season. Just imagine how well we could have done had the likes of Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy, Julien Faubert and Dean Ashton available all season. We have to try to keep these players fit. We also have a lot of good young players coming through, such as Freddie Sears and James Tomkins. The optimum squad size is probably about 26 or 27 players. Our squad has become so big for a couple of reasons - the relegation battle we had in 2006/7 and the spate of injuries of 2007/8."

When Gudmundsson bought the Hammers in 2006, he laid out a five-year plan that, he hoped, would ultimately culminate in qualification for the Champions League. United finished 10th last season and the target for the coming season will be to challenge for a UEFA Cup spot.

One new face already signed is promising young Hungarian striker Balint Bajner. Although still no official word on his signature, Bajner expressed delight at winning a move to West Ham United, having impressed during a trial in East London. The teenager claims the Hammers and Romanian second division outfit Liberty Arad have agreed on a deal and he will move to Upton Park following the European Under-19 Championship. If sealed, the deal could prove to be a notable coup for United as Italian giants Inter and Lazio have also been linked to the 17-year-old. "I'm very happy, but I want to focus on the European Championship at the moment," said Bajner. "My dream came true with this transfer. I was on trial at Lazio and Inter Milan, but in May I had the chance to go to West Ham. In my trial we played a friendly game against Preston and we won 5-1. I scored twice and had two assists. After this Liberty and West Ham agreed about my transfer."

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Are You A West Ham United Mastermind?

Last night on Sport Mastermind, civil servant Denise Hardy answered questions on the subject of 'West Ham United since 1945'; scoring 14 points (with two passes). Here are the questions she faced so see if you can beat her score. I've included the answers in the comments section attached to this post.

1) Who's goal in the last game of the 2006/07 season against Manchester United ensured West Ham United's survival in the Premiership?

2) With what letter did the surname of seven of the Hammers' 1964 cup winning side begin with?

3) Who did John Hartson kick in the face in an infamous training ground incident in October 1998?

4) At which ground did West Ham United meet Liverpool in the replay of the 1981 League Cup final?

5) Which striker, who once scored a record ten goals in a single game for Luton Town, was signed by the Hammers in December 1946?

6) Malcolm Allison's playing career at the top level was effectively ended following a bout of which illness?

7) What's unique about Alvin Martin's hat-trick in the Hammers' 8-1 victory over Newcastle in April 1986?

8) By what aggregate score were West Ham knocked out of the first round of the UEFA Cup in September 2006?

9) At the start of the 2001/02 season the Hammers paid £5 million for Don Hutchison plus a club record (at the time) £5.5 million for which player?

10) Who managed the club for the shortest time in West Ham United's history, lasting just 7 months?

11) Goalkeeper Jim Standen won winners medals in the '64 FA Cup and the Cup Winners' Cup the following year. With which county did he win the cricket county championship in those same years?

12) Who scored the only goal against Preston North End in the 2005 Championship Play-off final?

13) Which American finance company were West Ham's first shirt sponsors?

14) Who were West Ham's opponents in a 3rd round FA Cup tie in January 1974 when Bobby Moore made his last first team appearance for the club?

15) Who became the world's most expensive goalkeeper when he joined the Hammers from Queens Park Rangers in February 1979?

16) The terrace in front of the East Stand that was demolished in the summer of 1968 to make way for the new East Stand was known by what name?

One Scoop Or Two?

Here is the latest creamy scoop of transfer gossip and speculation; freshly coned and flaked for your delectation but probably already melted by the time you hit the final paragraph...

Newcastle United's faltering summer recruitment drive was knocked back once again yesterday when
Anton Ferdinand pulled out of transfer negotiations with the club. That is according to the Independent, who believe the United defender was one of a group of players the Toon's London-based transfer team had hoped to sign. The article states that although West Ham United were prepared to part with the former England Under-21 international, Ferdinand himself was understood to be less than enamoured with the idea of moving to the North-east. It leaves Newcastle in a predicament, with their only two signings in the transfer window the Argentine winger Jonas Gutierrez from Real Mallorca and Danny Guthrie, the Liverpool midfielder who was on loan at Bolton Wanderers last season.

Newcastle's transfer business is conducted from London by the three-man team of Dennis Wise, Tony Jimenez and Jeff Vetere. Their views on transfers have not always chimed with those of the club's manager, Kevin Keegan, although they were in agreement over Peter Crouch, who also turned down Newcastle. At this rate, it would appear that they are being forced to look a long way down their list of potential targets. Ferdinand, 23, is reported here to be valued at £6 million, with Newcastle by far the most interested party. Tottenham and Aston Villa are also believed to have expressed an interest.

The Hammers, the article states, will continue in their attempts to offload Ferdinand as they trim a vastly inflated wage bill insist the paper. Of course, mentioning United's supposed financial problems in any transfer story has become de rigueur for the British media. The fact Ferdinand's wages are not among the Club's highest is regarded as unimportant, as is the fact United's valuation of the player is thought to be considerably higher than the price mentioned in this story. In a footnote, the paper states
Lucas Neill and Craig Bellamy are also believed to be available for the right price.

Several of the morning papers have
Alan Curbishley ready to make a second attempt to sign Leicester City defender Joe Mattock. The Mirror claim a £2 million swoop is imminent with both Aston Villa and Everton also in the hunt to sign the England Under-21 defender this summer. The Sun insist United already failed with a £1.25m bid for the 18-year-old back in January, after Foxes chief Milan Mandaric decided to hold out for a more substantial fee.

Elsewhere there are extremely tenuous reports linking Stoke City with a move for Hammers midfielder
Hayden Mullins. Potters boss Tony Pulis is said to be keen to add Mullins' experience to his midfield as he steps up transfer plans this week. There is also a mysterious quote attributed to Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini floating about, which supposedly confirms Lazio midfielder Valon Behrami is set to join West Ham United. I say 'mysterious' because there is no confirmed source and precious little context to lend the comment any degree of authenticity. For what it is worth, Zamparini is quoted as saying: "For Behrami, I tried to establish contact with (Lazio president) Claudio Lotito some time ago, but have not received any answers. I now believe that the player will go to West Ham."

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Is This The New Home Kit? (Revisited)

Last Friday I posted a mock-up of the design for the new West Ham United home kit. It is based on the newly released Umbro templates and I said at the time it was probably as accurate a guess as is currently available. Well, the creator of that image- the genius that is Jackhammer- has now tweaked his effort to reveal what he believes is an even more accurate representation of what we will be wearing come the new season. As you can see there are several small detail alterations and one big change with the collar.

There is also official confirmation that the Club will be unveiling the new home kit on Monday 21 July and will be taking pre-orders ahead of the official launch date of Wednesday 30 July. The brand new strip will again be available exclusively via the club stores at the Boleyn Ground and Lakeside and also through the official web-based Megastore.

The new kit has been made using Umbro's new Trilogy fabric, a thermodynamic performance enhancing material designed to control vapour, moisture and heat. The blurb says it has a "unique contrast v neckline featuring a white mock collar, solid sky sleeves and tonal striped jacquard throughout the main body".

A Swiss Rolling In?

Fulham have finally completed the protracted signings of Bobby Zamora and John Pa(i)ntsil. The pair move across London for a combined sum of £6.3 million, although the fee could rise by a further £1 million based on appearances. Zamora has penned a four-year deal at Craven Cottage, whilst Ghana defender Pantsil has put his name to a three-year contract.

Bobby Zamora leaves Upton Park after four-and-a-half years in East London, having signed for United in January 2004 as part of the deal that saw Jermain Defoe move to Tottenham. Over that time he bagged 40 goals in 152 appearances, including three goals in the play-off semi-finals and final that restored Premiership football to E13. The following year Zamora played a major role in the side that finished in the top half of the Premiership and reached the final of the FA Cup. At the start of 2006/07 he scored six in the first four games of the season before a barren run ensued which coincided with the club's fight against relegation. A stunning return to form towards the end of the season saw him combine well with Carlos Tevez to fire the Hammers to improbable safety; in the process becoming the first - and so far only - player to score a league winner for the away side at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium.

Zamora's last season with United was blighted by injury and he made only 14 appearances. With the return to fitness of Craig Bellamy and Dean Ashton, the form of Carlton Cole and the emergence of Freddie Sears, Zamora was deemed surplus to requirements and was granted permission last week to discuss a move to Fulham.

John Pantsil began his career in Berekum, Ghana. A player comfortable at full back or in midfield, he had stints with Berekum Arsenal and Liberty Professionals and a brief spell with Polish side Widzew Lódz before moving to Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2002. After the 2006 World Cup, Pantsil joined West Ham United on their pre-season tour of Sweden on the recommendation of Yossi Benayoun. He featured in the matches out there putting in some impressive performances before his signing with the Club was completed in August 2006.

The Ghanaian international caused immediate confusion by insisting his name was Paintsil, rather than Pantsil which apparently appears on all official documents. His opportunities for United have been limited and the bulk of his 24 appearances have been made from the bench. One of these appearances came in last season's 2-1 victory over Manchester United when he put in a storming performance which he failed to repeat in subsequent matches. His role in that victory endeared him to a section of the Boleyn faithful to the extent that a number of chants developed likening the Ghanaian's skills to those of Kaka.

In addressing the departure of the two players, West Ham United CEO Scott Duxbury said: "In view of the competition for places at the club and a lack of first-team opportunities likely in the new season, we recognised both players' wish for regular football. Bobby Zamora played a significant part in the club securing promotion back in 2004/05 and his form and goals particularly in that Championship season will not be forgotten. I am sure both he and John Pantsil will be warmly welcomed whenever they return to the Boleyn Ground in the years to come."

Fulham boss Roy Hodgson was obviously delighted to secure the double deal. "I am very pleased that we have been able to add both Bobby Zamora and John Pantsil to our squad," he told the club's official website. "Bobby is a talented striker who not only has a desire to score goals but always looks to involve the rest of the team with his intelligent play. I have no doubt that Bobby will play an important part for us and his quality has allowed us to stregthen our attacking options. John has a versatility that will provide us with more defensive options, which is extremely important to the strength and depth we have in the squad. Completing both signings has been a protracted process which has been much speculated about in the media. I am delighted that we can now officially welcome the players to the club, following the completion of all of the necessary paperwork."

Speaking this morning, Bobby Zamora added: "I am delighted that we have reached an agreement to enable me to play for Fulham next season. I am looking forward to joining the rest of the team this week and preparing for the new campaign. This is a new challenge for me and the prospect of working with a coach of Roy Hodgson’s caliber was a great opportunity, so I am excited at the prospect of competing for a regular place in the team."

In other news, Lucas Neill was said to be a step closer to joining Manchester City tonight after West Ham United finally agreed a deal with Lazio right-back Valon Behrami. According to the Mail, the 23-year old Switzerland defender flew into London for a medical after activating a FIFA rule that will allow him to become a West Ham player for a fraction of Lazio’s original asking price. It is claimed West Ham will sign Behrami for less than a third of his initial £11 million valuation after he informed Lazio he was invoking article 17, which gives players nearing the end of their contracts the right to move on without costing a fee.

Lazio will be entitled to compensation and are seeking over £3 million, but United are hoping to settle on around £1.5 million for a versatile defender who started all three of Switzerland’s Euro 2008 matches. The article states Kosovo-born Behrami has chosen the Hammers ahead of both Palermo and Werder Bremen; this despite comments last week suggesting the player was heading to Germany. The Mail insists that Behrami's impending arrival casts further uncertainty over Neill’s West Ham future. An earlier story had revealed how Mark Hughes was keen to revive their Blackburn partnership, and now the paper think a move is even likelier after the Australia defender was left in little doubt he would be competing for the left-back spot if he remained at Upton Park.

Of course, how convincing you find this story depends largely on your opinion of the Daily Mail. The ludicrous scare story the newspaper ran over night that predicted the impending financial meltdown of the Club seemed predicated on a spurious web of half truths and blind speculation. Far from a dramatic downturn in the Icelandic economy and a crisis of confidence in the banking sector, cursory investigations actually show Landsbanki made an after tax profit of €456,000,000 in 2007. The first 3 months figures for 2008, which were only released to the press in May this year, show profits were up again to €171,000,000 after tax. If that is skid row then sign me up.

Feeling The Pinch

A couple of the morning papers have strongly linked Lucas Neill with a switch to Manchester City. In the case of the Daily Mail, it is the centre piece of a doom-laden story about the club being credit-crunched into imminent financial oblivion or something similarly sensational. The article suggests the West Ham skipper has actively been offered to both Galatasaray and Portsmouth as oppose to courted by them, and such is West Ham's financial plight that we are ready to accept a cut-price offer, believed to be less than £750,000, to allow Neill to move to Eastlands.

The defender is reportedly tempted by City's big plans for an assault on the top six, which, suspiciously, is the exact same reasoning the player voiced when he chose to join the club over Liverpool in January last year. Neill is also said to regard his old boss as one of the best managers in the game; this despite the fact he left Blackburn under a cloud of accusations and recriminations. The Mail insists the 30-year old's wages of around £60,000 a week are now the only potential stumbling block and West Ham United may have to pay off some of his contract to force through the move.

With Elano at the top of City's pay league, on £55,000 a week, and Dunne's new deal yielding around £50,000 a week, the Eastlands board are said to be reluctant to match Neill's current wages. The proposed signing of Ronaldinho would be a one-off change in the wage structure not to be repeated. The Mail insist Neill is ready to accept a drop in earnings after West Ham signalled they will grant him a final pay-off to cover the two years left on his contract. Quite why United would agree to something like this when they could just keep the club captain themselves for the same outlay is a puzzle. Surely we can't be in that much need for £750,000?

Unnamed 'sources close to the club' are said to be increasingly concerned that mounting financial problems in Iceland have forced owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson to tighten his belt and explore ways of reducing the club's overheads. Although the drive to bring in funds and lower the wage bill began yesterday with a £6million move to Fulham for Bobby Zamora and John Pantsil, West Ham's board are said to be desperate to find takers for top earner Freddie Ljungberg. Also available is Anton Ferdinand if the club receive an offer around £10 million. Newcastle, Aston Villa and Tottenham are named as clubs monitoring the situation. Goalkeeper Robert Green is another said to be attracting interest, while the club is fighting to keep versatile Northern Ireland defender George McCartney.

A dramatic downturn in the Icelandic economy is blamed for leaving the club in disarray, with several senior players either sold or available and doubts growing over Curbishley's future. Gudmundsson is said to have grown increasingly anxious at the way his country's financial troubles have multiplied since the start of the year, when investors first began voicing misgivings over whether the banks were at risk of defaulting on huge foreign loans. It has developed into a crisis of confidence in the banking sector, with reports from Reykjavik referring to a collapsing currency, rising inflation and predictions of an imminent recession.

Over at the Sun, they think Mark Hughes is ready to make an audacious bid to sign both Lucas Neill and Craig Bellamy. The players played under Hughes at Blackburn and, in the case of Bellamy, at international level. Both were sold reluctantly by Hughes during his time at Ewood Park— striker Bellamy left for Liverpool in a £6million switch while defender Neill joined the Hammers for £1.5m.

According to the article, Alan Curbishley is under increasing pressure to reduce the massive wage bill at Upton Park and the two players are believed to earn £75,000- a-week combined. It was Neill's wages, say the Sun, that forced Turkish club Galatasaray to think again about signing the Aussie defender. While City owner Thaksin Shinawatra wants to sign a big-name star and has targeted Barcelona ace Ronaldinho, Hughes is keen to bring in players who know what the Premier League is all about.

As if Alan Curbishley wasn't already under enough pressure, a leading bookmaker has just issued a press release with the odds for the new season’s “Sack Race”. Who will be the first Barclays Premier League manager to lose his job? The shortest odds accompany the names of Curbishley, Gary Megson, Paul Ince, Roy Hodgson, Kevin Keegan and the newly promoted trio of Phil Brown, Tony Mowbray and Tony Pulis. At second favourite for the race nobody wants to win, the squeeze on Curbishley these next few months looks set to be every bit emotional as it is fiscal.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Nothing Is New Under The Sun

So, Bobby Zamora still hasn't passed his medical. John Pantsil still hasn't made his mind up. We've signed another young foreign prospect; or we haven't. The Valon Behrami transfer took another twist; or it didn't. We thought about flogging our reserve goalkeeper, but couldn't. Then considered replacing him with a Scottish goalkeeper, so probably shouldn't. Finally, we got snubbed by an Italian who we were interested in, then got snubbed again by another that we probably weren't. As Alphonse Karr ruefully observed... the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bobby Zamora's protracted move across London still hasn't reached a conclusion despite strong rumours that the Cottagers agreed a fee with West Ham United as early as last week. The Telegraph say sources have it in good faith that Zamora will sign for around £6.25 million soon, but reports of the player's medical today still failed to rubber stamp the deal. We can only hope the striker hasn't seen the recent poll of Fulham fans that saw a massive 80% say they would prefer Everton's Andy Johnson. One reason for the delay could be John Pantsil's reticence to be a make-weight in any deal that might see him swap one substitutes bench for an even less salubrious one.

Elsewhere, United are reported to be close to sealing a deal for 15-year-old Pole Filip Modelski, according to the website of his former club, Arka Gdynia. The young defender, who will be 16 later this year, was said to be a target for Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool but has opted to join the Hammers after spending a week on trial in London at the start of July. Although no details of the deal are known, Arka insist it will be one of the most lucrative sales in their history. Modelski, if confirmed, will be the third foreign youngster to join the Hammers since the end of last season, following on from the capture of Holmar Orn Eyjolfsson and Balint Bajner.

Jim Magilton has warned West Ham that he will look elsewhere if they do not make a decision on the future of Richard Wright by the end of this week. Ipswich are keen to bring the former England international back to Portman Road, but The Hammers have been accused of dragging their heels. Wright would appear to be Magilton’s first choice, but he has other options and is desperate to have his squad in place ahead of the new season.

"We are not prepared to wait too much longer," Magilton told the East Anglian Daily Times. "We would like to get something tied up by the end of the week at the latest. I will give it a few more days and see how the land lies and I hope a deal can be concluded, if not we will look elsewhere. We have to have other irons in the fire and we are constantly on the lookout for the right sort. If it is not Richard it will be someone else. There is another goalkeeper we are in talks with. Richard Wright coming back ticks all our boxes. We are a club he knows well and I would like to take him back, but it is not ticking West Ham's boxes at the moment, because if they lose a keeper they need a replacement and until they get a replacement, Richard is not going anywhere. But if they can get someone in and it frees up Richard, then we are in a position to take him."

That replacement could be Rangers keeper Neil Alexander. He is reported to be on Alan Curbishley's radar following a series of impressive displays last season when deputising for Allan McGregor. With the Rangers number one nearing full-fitness for the start of the new season Alexander will be back as second choice at Ibrox and therefore may be tempted to return south for a fee of around £1 million. The Scottish giants also have former Kilmarnock keeper Graeme Smith on their books as their third pick.

Reports from Italy suggest Marco Zambelli has spurned advances from West Ham, despite a 'princely offer'. The Brescia defender has apparently declined a lot of money to stay at the Serie B side, and has apologised for not letting the club cash in on his fame. "I am sorry for the coffers of Brescia," he declared. "For this we do not talk. For the future, we will see. But my intention is clear. I have always said I want to become the master of Brescia. My desire is winning the league with these colours. I have not changed my mind." Another rumour emanating from Italy, this time courtesy of Sportal, has linked the club to winger Stefano Guberti. Described as "one of the hottest names in the market", the Ascoli player looks set to leave the Serie B side in order to advance his career but it's thought the Premier League would not be his destination of choice.

Finally, some well respected 'ITK' sources are claiming Valon Behrami has actually signed a pre-contract agreement with the club. This flies so intractably in the face of every word uttered by the player and his agent over the last week that caution should be advised. It is also suggested that we are still negotiating with Eidur Gudjohnsen, where excessive personal demands are causing a problem; while Ugandan trialist David Obua really impressed United staff and could be offered playing time in an upcoming friendly and then a deal if all goes well.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

2008 European Under-19 Championship Preview

James Tomkins is getting ready to play an integral part in England's bid to win the 2008 European Under-19 Championship when the finals begin against the host nation Czech Republic this afternoon. The young defender has kept himself sharp since the end of the season and has stepped up his training since returning to Chadwell Heath. In good shape then for the Young Lions, Tomkins insists: "I am looking forward to going away with England, it will be a good tournament. But we are not going there to make up the numbers we are going out to win it. We did well in the qualifiers so we are full of confidence." England coach Brian Eastick named Tomkins and club-mate Freddie Sears in his 18-man selection, with both players having been instrumental in qualifying. It is thought the duo will start when things get under way at 4.30pm London time. "There have been a few changes to the side but the people coming in have done well so there is no reason why we can't do well," Tomkins added. "It is obviously nice to have a club team-mate there in the shape of Freddie but we are a close-knit bunch who all get on well together."

Freddie Sears is also eager to impress on the international stage. The young West Ham United striker flew out on Friday with Tomkins and the rest of the 18-man England squad, after training at the National Football Centre in Burton-on-Trent this week. Sears says he has enjoyed being involved in the England set-up and has been keeping his fitness levels up, even in his spare time. "Training has been really good, it's been mainly about getting our fitness levels up and a bit of football mixed in, but in our spare time, we have been having a few games of tennis between ourselves," said Sears. "There is a good bunch of lads here, a few new faces and then the rest of the lads who have been in the squad during the summer, so we have had a laugh while still working hard in training. I am just aiming to play my best and score whether I come on as sub or start the game, he said. "We are all really confident that we can do well enough to win the tournament, there is good belief in the team that we can go all the way."

Sears is pleased to have team-mate Tomkins with him on the international trip and said he is proving to be a good room-mate. "Tomka's been alright to share with so far," joked Sears. "No one has to get up to make a cup of tea because we don't have this in our room! We get on well and we're just really looking forward to playing well for our country."

The West Ham United striker was a key man in qualification, not least with his double strike in the 2-0 win against Poland that helped the Young Lions win the decisive Elite round mini-tournament played in Belarus back in May. "It's been a good year and we've done well and stuck together as a group," he stated. "There have been a few injuries and different people coming in, but overall it's a good squad. Tournaments are different because you play so many games in a short space of time, so it's all about recovery really and Belarus should set us up well for the finals," the 18-year-old added. "Obviously we are going to see great players out there because a few of the best players in the world have played at this tournament. You expect different things from different teams, so it should be good."

Tony Carr earlier spoke of his pride as Tomkins and Sears prepared to help England's quest for glory in the Czech Republic. The duo's inclusion in the prestigious UEFA tournament for the continent's most talented teenagers is just reward for the progress they have made from the West Ham United academy through to the first team. "They are playing in a terrific tournament and they will only come back better players for it," Academy director Carr said. "Club football and international football even at U19 level does present different problems. It tends to be more tactical and there tends to be more opportunities for individuals to shine and be match-winners. It is different from the cut and thrust of club league football really and it will be terrific for their development."

The call-up means Tomkins and Sears will not be able to travel with West Ham United on the high-profile North American tour. Carr said they have mixed feelings about missing out on the trip but the benefits were there for all to see. "After representing the first team last season, they would have wanted to stay and be part of Alan Curbishley's plans for the early part of pre-season and have an opportunity to shine but you can't turn down representing your country."

Speaking to the, England coach Noel Blake, who works with head coach Brian Eastick, said: "We're taking a strong squad over to the Czech Repubic and a few of the players in the 18 have played first team games for their clubs, such as Victor Moses at Crystal Palace and both Tomkins and Sears with West Ham, so that's good experience for them."

England finished runners-up to France three years ago in Belfast only to lose out in the Elite round in each of the next two seasons. This time they won Group 1 ahead of Belarus, Serbia and Poland at the end of May. "When you get to this stage there are no easy draws so I'm fairly open-minded," Eastick told after the finals draw in Prague on 1 June. "You have to be philosophical about it; some might think it's easier than the other group, some might think it's more difficult. It doesn't matter which group you're in, it's going to be difficult when you get to this level."

England have not lifted a youth trophy since claiming the U18 title in 1993 but Eastick believes in looking at the bigger picture. "Obviously we hope to do well," he said. "This is going to be fantastic, we believe all our players need more tournament experience. If you spoke to the previous three or four senior England managers they would all say the one thing they would have liked the players to have had is more of that. You want the best players for the finals to give them that experience, because it's very different. It's a fantastic opportunity for the players – and for me and the staff too. It's the chance to play against some of the best young players in Europe, and under a bit of pressure too."

Having missed out in the last two seasons, Eastick is keen for his players to make the most of their time in the Czech Republic, and admits this squad has different qualities to those which have preceded it. "Last year we had a very strong team, but we didn't get the players for the Elite round and didn't qualify," he said. "This year, without being disrespectful to the players, there perhaps isn't as much quality in depth but what we have developed is a very good team spirit. They're a very hungry group of players to work with and have bonded together very well – and that's reflected in the results so far."

In Group B of the eight-nation tournament, England will take on Italy on 17 July and Greece on 20 July in Jablonec and Liberec respectively. The opening game today against the Czechs is being shown live on Eurosport, and is in fact the only England group game to be screened. Should they finish in the top two, England will go on to meet one of the two sides that make it through from Group A in the semi-finals on 23 July. That section contains Germany, Spain, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Although defender Jordan Spence and Czech goalkeeper Marek Stech did not make the final selections for the tournament, there are still a couple of other points of interest. Leicester City defender Joe Mattock, a long time target of Alan Curbishley, should be on display alongside Tomkins. Also, imposing striker Balint Bajner, our possible latest but as yet unconfirmed signing, could feature for Hungary.

Sunday Paper Review

It is a depressingly quiet Sunday paper round-up with a couple of the grubbier tabloids omitting to include West Ham United within their desultory transfer rumour pages. While the subjects of shady Iranians, illegal contracts and law suits last summer caused me to doubt the wisdom of Oscar Wilde's famous saying; in the aridity of a more humdrum pre-season it is most definitely better to be talked about than not.

Thankfully you can nearly always rely on the News of the World to slake your guilty thirst for inane transfer tittle-tattle. They insist Manchester City are set to bid £1.6million for United skipper Lucas Neill. The Hammers captain is reportedly in dispute with the club over a new deal and wants an extension plus improved terms. The club are understandably reluctant to better his £55,000-a-week salary, which they consider to be more than generous for a 30-year-old.

As reported elsewhere, Galatasaray have made a firm offer but Neill is unsure about a move to Turkey. Now the Aussie is waiting for City manager Mark Hughes to swoop. Neill played under Hughes at Blackburn before joining West Ham United in January 2007. At the time Liverpool wanted him as well but the Hammers, who were then in the Premier League drop zone, offered Neill a substantially bigger salary for which they are now paying the price. According to the article, the club's lavish spending has caused an urgent need to trim both the squad and wage bill.

Elsewhere, Alan Curbishley is described as 'still hopeful' of completing the £9 million signing of Swiss star Valon Behrami from Lazio, who would replace Neill at right-back. This is despite the comments attributed to the player's agent last week suggesting that Behrami was not interested in moving to the Premiership. With Bobby Zamora poised for a £6 million switch to Fulham, the Hammers have funds coming in and hope defender John Pantsil, although reticent, will follow the striker to Craven Cottage for £1.5million. The club have also recently turned down a £4.5 million offer from Sunderland for George McCartney but, insists the paper, would find it 'hard to resist' an improved £6 million bid for the left-back.

In a separate little piece, the club are reported to be keen on signing Christian Wilhelmsson — the Swedish star gleefully dubbed 'The Feather' after his lightweight displays while on loan at Bolton last year. The experienced midfielder, 28, has 52 caps but still has a year left on his contract with French side Nantes.

A final flight of fancy has the Hammers offering in excess of £11 million for unsettled Everton striker Andy Johnson. It is 'understood' that Johnson would prefer a return to London over a further stint up north. The Sunday People disagree, and insist United are out of the running for the forward. They put Fulham as his likely destination, despite the imminent capture of Zamora.

The same paper has Newcastle offering Damian Duff to United in a player-plus-cash bid for Anton Ferdinand. They say Toon boss Kevin Keegan is keen to land Ferdinand and thus re-create his Under-21 central defensive partnership with Steven Taylor. Tottenham are also credited with an interest in Ferdinand, but as yet neither club have come close to Hammers' £10 million valuation. Alan Curbishley is said to want to bring in a left winger; with and Luis Boa MorteMatty Etherington both tipped to leave Upton Park. Newcastle believe Republic of Ireland man Duff, 29, could tempt the West Ham manager to part with Ferdinand. Duff, once signed by Chelsea for £17 million, returned from a serious ankle injury last season but has failed to nail down a regular first team place.

In a final throw-away piece, Tottenham are also linked with a move for Matthew Upson amid growing concerns for the long-term fitness of Ledley King; while several papers picked up the story of our interest in Leicester City defender Joe Mattock.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Tanzanian Peaks And Ugandan Cranes

I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story but a report from claims former Kaizer Chiefs utility man David Obua is currently having a trial with the club. The 24 year old from Kampala is said to have left for Europe on Thursday morning, amidst speculation that he would be joining former Uganda national team coach Laszlo Csaba at Hearts. Instead, it is claimed he landed in London and participated in a full pre-season training session with West Ham United on Friday. quotes an unnamed insider as saying: "Obua travelled to England aboard Kenya Airways on invitation for trials. The training staff at West Ham said that he did well and was quite impressive." If a deal was to be struck then Obua would become the first Ugandan to play in the Premiership. He is reportedly a free agent as his contract expired with the South African club at the end of last month.

Obua is a predominately left-sided player who can operate in defence or midfield. He signed his first contract in the United States to play football at collegiate level but off-field problems forced his premature return home. Picking up the pieces of his career with Port Louis and Express FC, he subsequently did enough to earn a place on the Uganda National Team, before being spotted by Kaizer Chiefs after a standout performance against South Africa. He went on to become one of the top players in South Africa during a two-year period 2005-2007. In September last year he scored a hat-trick for Uganda in an African Cup of Nations qualifier against Niger.

Obua has been linked with moves to Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb, Italian Serie B side Brescia, Orlando Pirates, and other sides from Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Tunisia and Egypt. "As a professional, I have to weigh my options and make a decision," Obua said earlier this week. "I have many offers, but I’m not about to rush. One thing is for sure, I’m not returning to South Africa. I have nothing to prove in South Africa because I believe I’ve won everything as an individual. I need a new challenge that will only be realised in Europe.”

Obua is the son of Denis Obua, considered by some as Uganda's all-time top player. He played for Uganda in the 1978 African Nations Cup Finals. His uncle, John Akii-Bua was a hurdler in track and field. He became Uganda's first Olympic champion after winning the 400-metre hurdles in the world record time of 47.82 seconds at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

On a separate note, here are a couple of nice articles from today's Independent on Robert Green's recent scaling of Mount Kilimanjaro. The United goalkeeper eschewed the traditional footballer's holiday of sun and debauchery and went instead to Africa to work with a charity that helps the truly disadvantaged. When reading about his experiences- both shattering and ultimately uplifting- you come to realise just what a great ambassador for West Ham United this man is. He is, without doubt, my favorite current Hammers player so give this man a new contract now!
Without doubt, it was my finest moment in football. In front of a crowd of around 500, I was in Dagoretti, one of Nairobi's many slums, surrounded by burnt out cars, fighting stray dogs, free-roaming chickens and glue-sniffing street children. There was litter strewn everywhere and it was a dust bowl of a pitch but, all modesty aside, I scored one of the greatest goals the beautiful game has ever seen.

Playing for the British consulate against Railway Wanderers, I had already abandoned my traditional role of goalkeeper after refusing to dive in among the glass and rocks to save the opening goal of the match, and roamed the midfield in an attempt to be a bit more of a positive influence. After a few minutes a hopeful punt forward came to me in the centre circle. As I took the ball on my chest and turned, I heard a shout from one of my British team-mates: "Go on, go it alone."

Being in the middle of Kenya and at least 45 yards from goal, I thought better of it and, on the volley, smashed the ball as hard as I could over a back-pedalling keeper, one bounce into the roof of the net. There might be a better goal scored this coming season, but I doubt it.

The crowd went wild, I got mobbed and the African fallacy of Premier League footballers being superhuman grew just a little bit more. I substituted myself immediately so as not to ruin the moment.

Come the end of the game, I was beckoned over by the local crowd to take a look at their "main stand". Glancing over, all I could see was more slums in the distance. Closer inspection revealed the main stand to be a row of tree stumps, lined up parallel to the pitch, with chopped and varnished branches on top to make crude but surprisingly comfortable benches.

"Each game we have, we go around with a hat and collect money for our stadium," I was told in perfect English by a spectator who showed some authority among the crowd. I was shown the hat. It had around 100 Kenyan shillings (about 70p). "This is enough to buy one more tree stump from which we will make our bench, we make them ourselves," he continued. "We have no help from the Government, nothing. They are all – how you say – 'fat cats'. But it is our dream to surround our stadium in seating so the people of Dagoretti can sit and watch their football."

It took a moment for it to sink in. These people have nothing. They live in homes made from mud and faeces. They have no water, very little food, and not much hope for the future. But it meant everything to them to build a football stadium that they could be proud of. And they were proud of it. It was their life.

At this point I realised why I had come to Africa.

This was the first summer in a number of years that I had had more than a few weeks' break. We knew back in November that England would not be competing at Euro 2008 – which is not to presume I would have been in the squad, but obviously I'd be at least an interested spectator – and having no family to think of, and spending the last few years' holidays boring myself on different beaches, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to explore a part of the world that I thought I might never get the chance to see.

I would be able to experience something different, something that I could learn from, appreciate a whole different level of life. And, most importantly to me, perhaps I could even use the status of a Premier League footballer for some good.

Playing professional football you surround yourself in a bubble. For 11 months of the year you don't have a choice of truly experiencing real life. Having left school and gone straight into football, I have played almost every day of my adult life. As far as lives go, I admit I have a pretty great one. But as far as life experiences go, it has been of fairly limited scope.

In a similar way, life as a footballer is self-focused. It can be easy to take for granted the life that you lead. Focusing on the negatives, not appreciating what you have, things that anyone in the western world could be guilty of. As a footballer you live on challenges, whether they are set by fans, managers, media, the opposition or yourself. This summer I wanted something to challenge the habits, thoughts, and beliefs that I had built into myself after 12 years of full-time football.

So around Christmas last year I approached a number of charities with my thoughts on how I wanted to use my summer break. Amref (the African Medical Research Foundation) came across as positive and active and saw my interest as an opportunity they could make something of: to use football and, in particular, the popularity of the Premier League as a vehicle to spread their Aids, HIV, health and peace messages.

On arriving in Nairobi, I found the dusty, bustling streets were jam-packed with rushing commuters, similar to London, but with fewer suits. But there were some instantly familiar sights: the chaotic roads were full of local buses – mutates – half of which were dedicated to a Premier League team, player or ground. There was the Drogba Bus, the Adebayor Bus and the Gerrard Bus. And it wasn't just the buses. Huge billboards lined the streets: Ronaldo, Joe Cole and Fernando Torres selling anything from mobile phones to saving plans. A pattern was emerging.

The first place we visited was Amrek's clinic in Dagoretti, which was positioned next to a sea of makeshift tents. These were filled with refugees from the civil war earlier this year. We met a group of eight children, aged from six to 16, from two related families who had fled from their homes and farms outside the city. Among them was eight-year-old Peter Mwangi, a cheeky-looking boy, with a permanent grin who had just had a cast removed from his broken arm. The children explained, through an interpreter, the ordeals of their families hiding at night in their maize fields for two weeks, while they watched rioters burn down their home and attack friends and family with clubs and machetes.

It would have been a terrible experience for anyone, let alone children as young as this and Peter had not spoken throughout. We asked what the clinic provided and the children responded with answers such as schooling, food, safety, and health checks. Then Peter sprang into life shouting: "Futa!" (Football in Shen, a mixture of Swahili and English). I asked him his favourite position. "Goalie!" This needed no translation. I had found a new hero.

Wandering back out of the clinic, we walked on to a small dust-covered area where a mixed team were holding a football training session. Amazingly, it was almost identical to a specific training session we use back at West Ham. It's not just football that is universal, it seems. Football training is too.

Behind the fence that protected the dust bowl the movement of refugees from their camp had stopped as people enjoyed the training session. The stark contrast between the organisation and skills on show right next to the chaos of broken and lost lives was difficult to avoid.

A few days later we were able to watch a game of football. A rejuvenated Kenyan team were hosting Zimbabwe in a World Cup qualifier. It was carnage from start to finish. The crowds trying to get in five minutes before kick-off were getting restless and swarming the turnstile in an attempt to catch the start. Their anxiety was met by that of the police, who were quick to brandish clubs and bayonets on rifles to clear the mobs.

Inside the ground it was equally manic, with dancing and singing in the stands before, after and during the match. Early and late Kenyan goals sent the 35,000 crowd into raptures, causing surges and shaking within the terracing. I couldn't – rather than didn't – see much of the match, but the exuberant crowd more than made up for it. It was the first time in a long while that I enjoyed watching a game of football on a day off.

The experiences of Dagoretti proved to be warm-up for the streets of Kibera. A two kilometre square slum and home to a million people, it witnessed some of the harshest violence during Kenya's post-election troubles. The Kenyan government barely acknowledges Kibera as a settlement and it is almost understandable why. The size of the place and the problems are so big that it is impossible to decide where to start. Amref decided to start right in the heart of the slum.

Surrounded by thousands of tiny mud huts, the Amref clinic was the only brick building to be seen. The streams of rubbish and bags of sewage line the streets, causing sanitation to be non-existent. Children who could barely walk, roamed the streets alone, picking through the filth for anything they could find.

For me, this was a culture shock on an almost indescribable scale. It was hard to take everything in. I found it a fight not to be sick from the smell. It was difficult to understand, and even harder not to be overcome, by the enormity of it all. This was an education. It took me some time to realise that at the end of a day the stench in the hotel was me and my sweat from the hours spent in such squalid environments.

Amref's work in Kibera mainly consisted of treating HIV and Aids sufferers from two of the 14 villages that make up the slum. Meeting two single mothers who lived "positively" through Amref was an extraordinary and in many ways uplifting experience.

Mildred Kendi was a young lady who had overcome the stigma, discrimination, and physical difficulties of living with HIV as well as the general problems of living in the slum to become a vibrant, positive person who led groups set up to help others in the same way. It was wonderful to see someone so positive and happy regardless of her situation and surroundings. She didn't have money to pay the rent, she watched her neighbours scrub the communal bath after she had used it and wasn't allowed to use the same washing line as them, but she was genuinely happy.

The next time I struggle to rise from bed for a 10.30am training session at West Ham, I will think of her. In fact, I will think of most of the people of Kibera. Friendly and lively, they were intrigued by the "strange, tall white man" walking around their homes. All so positive and happy living their normal lives in such extreme circumstances.

They knew their football as well. In among the homes people would poke their heads round a corner and shout my name. On turning round I would be greeted by another shout of "West Ham" or "England". Shops in the slums may have been made of wood or mud, but they provided the same services as any western shopping centre. The difference being that these would be named after footballing subjects. Football Sold. The Emirates Library, Lineker's Video Store, even to the Real Madrid Battery Charging Service.

Kibera's pitch made the one in Dagoretti look like Wembley. An open drain ran straight through a patch of ground on which it would be illegal to keep animals in the UK. Here, though, it was a children's playground. In fact, it was the only children's playground for the thousands of kids that lived in the area – and they loved it, playing with anything from a stone to a rolled up sock. It staged numerous impromptu football matches.

The main event during my stay in Kibera was a game named as a "Peace and Reconciliation" match for the 14 villages within the slum. Each was home to a different tribe. Each of the tribes went to war with each other during the post-election violence earlier this year. For the match each tribe would be providing two players to make up two sides, and I was refereeing.

I must admit I didn't grasp the enormity of the situation until after the event, when I was told the disturbing recent history of the tribes. What I did notice at the time was the tension – there was even some snarling between members of the teams – which was a huge contrast to the friendly people I was meeting just a few moments before.

This was perhaps the first time that members from other tribes had come into contact with one another since they were in civil conflict, and I was in charge with a whistle. In fact, the game went by without so much as a murmur, but come the full-time whistle there was not the jubilation or celebration that I had witnessed in previous days.

It left me wondering whether we had actually done good or bad by using football to bring the tribes together, or whether it had just antagonised already fraught relations. But as I thought about it more I felt that, no matter how precarious, football had built bridges between previously fighting groups and I guessed I would have to leave it to Amref to decide on how to develop this.

What I knew for sure was that the sights, sounds and people of Nairobi had given me a life experience that I would remember long after those I had visited had forgotten me. I would not be able to tell you where I went to for my summer holiday last year. This year, I will never forget.

Leaving Kenya and making the short flight to Tanzania meant a flying altitude of around twenty thousand feet. Twenty minutes before landing our pilot cheerfully announced if we looked out of our windows we could see Mount Kilimanjaro. Looking out of the window it was there, above the clouds, looking at us eye to eye. I had seen the pictures and the video footage, but this was massive. I cursed AMREF for their challenge.

I had felt an extra sense of pressure. I realised I was not an average punter trying to climb Kilimanjaro. I had been on television, radio, in newspapers and magazines trying to drum up sponsorship for the AMREF cause. I wasn’t just going home to my family and friends to tell them that I had failed. I had put myself under severe pressure.

Our party consisted of fifteen people and one leader split fairly evenly between experienced and novice climbers. I was firmly in the beginner category. We were met by an army of forty porters to carry anything and everything needed to complete the climb in relative comfort. This soon became thirty nine as we watched one of the porters slip under the bus they were travelling in and have his leg ran over. This was not the start we were looking for.

Our five day climb consisted of rising at around 6.30 each day for breakfast and hiking for five to eight hours. Starting at the base of the mountain the terrain changed from the warmth of the glades, through to the exposed areas of heath land, and finally the barren grounds of volcanic rock.

We were told in the briefing that no matter how fit you were, it was a lottery as to whether your body would adapt to altitude. I knew from experience that my body does not take too kindly to sea sickness. So I assumed that it would be the same for altitude sickness. I was right.

After a fairly uneventful first few days I woke on the third morning knowing I was in trouble. It was the sort of day where in a normal environment I would have gone back to bed for the day and not move too far away from the bathroom. Unfortunately for me this was not a normal day and I was stuck half way up a mountain and only facing one direction, up. The eight hour hike that followed was absolute torture. ‘Slowly, slowly’ was the cry from the porters as a warning not only to fight the urge to rush up the mountain too quick, but to say to the rest of the group that the tart of a footballer was flagging way behind after stopping for his fifth toilet stop of the morning.

In a strange way I was glad that I had got through that day as I knew whatever the summit day could throw at me, it couldn’t get much worse. I was wrong.

Come the final ascent, the group had realised that the previous five days had been purely preparation for the last push up the mountain. We had spent our evenings, playing poker in the dark and having a joke and a laugh. There wasn’t any of that on the final evening. Nerves had really kicked in. It had felt like a build up to a game for me. A weeks training and resting in preparation for a Saturday, the tension, the build up, and the waiting for it to arrive.

Our final climb started at midnight. Trudging off into the darkness away from the warmth of our sleeping bags and disappearing into the freezing night didn’t seem like a great idea at the time. The hike was to last around seven to eight hours, with at least being in pitch black. It was hell. Physically it was a struggle to breath and there was still another thousand metres to climb, it was cold enough to freeze my drinking tube within the first hour of the climb and then all of my water that I was carrying by a couple of hours. Mentally there was nothing I could do. There was no scenery to take my mind off it and so it was back to staring at the pair of boots of the person in front for the next seven hours.

It wasn’t long before people of other groups started to drop out, and I thought if someone in our group did the same, then they would drop like flies. But hey, we had come this far.

Just after dawn the group had reached Stella Point, one hundred metres below the peak. I was still twenty minutes behind, resting after each couple of steps. Stumbling my way up the side of the mountain. There was nothing else to think of but to where and when my next step would be. It was a slight conciliation knowing that whatever came at me this coming season would be nothing compared to this climb.

The last hundred metre climb between Stella Point and Uhuru Peak took me about forty five minutes. To a man and woman our team had conquered the 5,895m mountain. I cannot remember one celebration from anyone. I was so pleased to have done it but was in too much pain to think of anything else. A quick photo, and head back down. The views were stunning, but it was all too much, it was around minus fifteen-twenty degrees and the oxygen level was below fifty percent of that at sea level.

The group started the descent but a few people started to wobble, and I was one of them. Because of the lack of oxygen to the brain, combined with a lack of water, diarrhoea and vomiting for two days, and a general inability to adapt to altitude, my body gave up on me. With one of my last clear thoughts I decided to call for help, it wasn’t the time or the place to trip of the edge of a mountain.

With the aid of two porters, I was guided down step by step for four hours back to our camp. After two hours sleep I was checked over by one of the group doctors. Each day we were given a medical to see if we could continue. One of the tests checked the oxygen levels in our blood. If it was below 78 percent, then you were deemed unfit to continue. Mine was at 45 percent.

On my return flight home, looking up at Kilimanjaro looked a lot less daunting having just reached its peak, but there was no way I would ever return there. It was by far the most demanding thing I have ever done, much like the first leg of the trip had been mentally demanding. In a similar way, the people of Kibera and Dagoretti had been normal people living in extraordinary conditions, I had been part of an ordinary group of people doing something extraordinary. Apart from the frost bite still in the tips of my fingers, and losing a stone in weight, I survived unscathed. It was an experience I will never forget, and if I am lucky, did some good.

Copyright 2007 ID Media Inc, All Right Reserved. Crafted by Nurudin Jauhari