Monday, 7 July 2008

The Long Road

What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise

Dean Ashton has had a slightly truncated summer break compared to most of his teammates after staying on to make his international debut against Trinidad and Tobago on 1 June. Yet speaking on the official site today the slimline striker, who reported back for pre-season training looking sharper than he has for some considerable while, said it has only whetted his appetite for the challenge ahead. "Because I started my summer a bit later than everyone else I haven't had as long as I had hoped but I have managed to rest up as much as I can," said the 24-year-old forward. "The experience with England was worth getting a shorter summer for as it is obviously one of my aims to be a regular with the international set-up."

Unconcerned with the intensity of these salad days of the season, Ashton continued: "It is nice to get back because everything is fresh and new. No one loves the first day of pre-season because you have been resting so you don't feel as fit. It is hard work to get back into it and you feel a bit stiff, but a few double sessions with the coaches and that is soon gone. Pre-season is always a tough time but after a few years in the game you know what to expect now. It is going to be hard but you have to get through it."

Another pleased to back is Scott Parker. The England international finished last season strongly with a run of ten consecutive games in the heart of the midfield after a frustrating first campaign at the Boleyn Ground. He was just hitting his stride when the curtain came down on 11 May. "The season ended a bit short for me really as I was making good progress after the stop-start season," he said. "Towards the end I got plenty of games and got where I needed to be. Hopefully from there I can push on this season and can build on that. I have had a good break. I went away with the family and just chilled out really. Nowadays you still have to do a bit of fitness in the close-season with the way the game is today and the games coming in such quick succession."

The club's first pre-season match is fast approaching on 17 July away to Hampton and Richmond Borough - which explains the intensity of training this week, including extra sessions in the afternoon and extensive gym work. Even though he has kept himself active, Parker admits to having "mixed" feelings about the first few days back at Chadwell Heath. "I don't really look forward to it as it is four weeks of running around and very hard work but it is obviously nice to see all the lads and catch up. It was especially good to come back and train with a near enough fit squad which is one thing we need to try to maintain this season." Among those also taking part in the group sessions were fit-again Craig Bellamy, Matthew Upson and Julien Faubert while Kieron Dyer and James Collins were also involved as part of their personal programmes. Others, like Lucas Neill and Lee Bowyer have also already been coming in for extra work throughout the summer.

Craig Bellamy insists he has European qualification on his mind for the coming campaign. The Welshman, another to endure a season marred by injury, told Sky Sports that he is raring to go - and that Europe was very much a realistic goal. "Every season you want to keep getting better," he said. "Considering what happened last season it shouldn't be too difficult to be better this season! I'm expecting a real big season for me and the club as well. The ambition is to get into Europe; we finished tenth with a lot of players out last season and we weren't too many points away. With the squad that we've already got, with one or two players coming in, we can improve on last season and shouldn't be too far away."

The notoriously restless Bellamy, who only joined the Hammers from Liverpool last summer, insisted he was content with life in East London - and confirmed that he was looking forward to finally repaying some of the club record £7.5 million fee it cost to acquire his services. "I've got four more years here and am really committed," he added. "I signed for five years and intend to see those five years out - so I've got four more years to play some of the best football of my career."

Mark Noble has slightly less grandiose ambitions and simply urged his fellow team-mates to increase the entertainment factor next season. A solid campaign was a welcome relief for many fans following the misadventures of Tevezgate and the frantic relegation scrap, but the Hammers set up camp in tenth spot in the Premier League in mid-March and then stubbornly refused to move for the ensuing months. "Hopefully it'll be a bit more exciting than last year - and we can push on into the UEFA Cup places," said Noble, before dismissing out of hand rumours linking him with a move to Arsenal. Talking to Sky Sports, Noble insisted: "I want to concentrate on West Ham and hopefully let them people keep saying those sort of things. I think it's just all rumours and I'm firmly happy where I am at the minute."

Meanwhile Anton Ferdinand revealed that he has held talks with Alan Curbishley with regards to his immediate future. The central defender has been linked with a string of clubs since the end of the 2007/08 season and reports over the weekend suggested a row had broken out between the player and his manager over the price placed on his head. West Ham United are said to be open to offers but only if they are in the region of £10 million. Ferdinand is said to have told close friends of his desire to leave and admits that he is unsure as to where he will be playing his football next season. "I don't know what's happening," he told Sky Sports. "I'm happy at West Ham and until I get told that I'm not a West Ham player then I'm a West Ham player. Hopefully that will get resolved soon. I had a little chat with him Alan Curbishley this morning which went well - and now I'm just looking to see where we go from here."

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