Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Power Behind The Throne

On a relatively quiet Saturday, honours for West Ham United related article of the day goes reluctantly to Simon Cass over at the Daily Mail for his feature on Steve Clarke.

Wily Clarke is the power behind the throne as Zola's Hammers go from strength to strength
by Simon Cass

An icy wind is cutting across an open field in Essex, a train rumbles past on the track close by, but a group of footballers are enjoying the challenge of another session with one of the brightest coaches of the modern game.

Gianfranco Zola has the ball at his feet and is closed down by hungry midfielders, no doubt including home-grown pair Mark Noble and Jack Collison.

But the man taking charge of this latest exercise is barking instructions and demanding more.

Steve Clarke, once of Chelsea, is Zola’s right-hand man and the West Ham players consider his input crucial as they continue to advance up the Barclays Premier League table.

Unbeaten away in their last six League games - they go to Arsenal - the improving fortunes are a result of Zola’s management, but also Clarke’s coaching.

While the little Italian is eager to play ball, Clarke takes all the sessions, organises the drills, calls the shots.

Training is based around short and sharp passing, closing down and hunting the ball in hungry packs, no long passing from back to front. It’s enough to warm the heart of any West Ham supporter, a club where they expect football to be played a certain way. For Clarke it is all about putting the drill on the training pitch into practice on the real thing.

‘Improving is all about repetition. The players work on how to receive the ball, how to see angles and how to pick a pass,’ he said.

‘We practise every day and, when it comes to Saturday, they know what to do: control and pass. Seeing it happen in games is our measure of success.’

Clarke has worked with some of the best in the game, after all. Ruud Gullit, Sir Bobby Robson, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant and even Luiz Felipe Scolari have all placed their faith in him. Understandably, Chelsea were sorry to see Clarke leave after he opted to work with his former Stamford Bridge colleague.

But now it is Zola’s turn to reap the benefits of working alongside a coach of Clarke’s undoubted ability, a fact borne out by West Ham’s recent upturn in form.

Taking the decision to quit the club for which he played 421 games before going on to work his way up through the coaching structure following a spell at Newcastle was clearly an emotional wrench for Clarke.

But while Scolari did his utmost to persuade Clarke to stay, describing him as ‘a man that is a link between me and the players and between me and the staff’, the Brazilian’s arrival left him feeling simply redundant on a training field where he had enjoyed significant input into the sessions under both Mourinho and Grant.

Significantly, it was Clarke who ran the set-piece drills under Scolari’s predecessors. Such has been Chelsea’s vulnerability in that area in recent weeks that the Brazilian may live to regret his reluctance to delegate responsibility a little more.

What is beyond doubt is the manner in which Clarke’s presence has been felt at West Ham. Having flirted dangerously with the relegation zone after losing four consecutive games in October, Zola’s side now sit in eighth place, a healthy 11 points away from the drop zone.

Zola is certainly indebted to his assistant for bringing his wealth of experience to West Ham’s training ground. ‘He knows a lot about the league and the way he organises the training sessions are unbelievable,’ said the manager.

‘I have to give him a lot of credit because a lot of the work that has gone on is because of his fantastic job.’

Chelsea’s multi-million pound Cobham headquarters, fingerprint entry system and all, may knock West Ham’s Chadwell Heath base into a cocked hat, but it is what goes on in the sessions out on the training field that really counts.

Smell The Atmosphere

West Ham United have completed the signing of Czech Republic midfielder Radoslav Kovac on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a possible permanent transfer believed to be in the region of £4million. The imposing 6'3 Kovac, who has been handed the No14 shirt, is equally adept at playing in central defence. He joins from Russian giants Spartak Moscow, where he was the captain. The 29-year-old, who played at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008, is vastly experienced and caught the eye at Wembley last August when the Czechs more than held their own in the 2-2 friendly draw with England. He is set to play for his country in next month's friendly against Morocco, having appeared in their last World Cup qualifier back in November.

At club level, Kovac has also played 14 games in the UEFA Champions League, with one goal, as well as gaining UEFA Cup experience. "I've spent four great years at Spartak but now it's time for a change," the midfielder told Spartak's website today, before stressing that he was unlikely to be lonely in England. "I have the phone numbers of my former Spartak team mates (Manchester United defender) Nemanja Vidic and (Tottenham Hotspur striker) Roman Pavlyuchenko so I can get in touch with them in England."

Gianfranco Zola said: "I am pleased to have Radoslav here. He has a lot of experience with the national team and he will give us competition in a midfield which is already very strong. I am sure he will help us with what we are trying to achieve this season."

Kovac arrived at the Boleyn Ground on Friday to finalise the deal and have a medical. He watched his new team-mates being put through their paces by Gianfranco Zola, Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen. Negotiations were completed on Friday evening to allow him to join a strong Czech contingent at the club following goalkeepers Marek Stech and Jan Lastuvka, along with Ludek Miklosko.

West Ham United CEO Scott Duxbury said: "I am delighted we have managed to secure the services of a proven international like Radoslav ahead of interest from clubs at home and abroad. He brings considerable quality and will fit right into Gianfranco Zola's talented squad. The deal is such that the manager will be able to sign him permanently in the summer if he so wishes."

Elsewhere, West Ham have confirmed midfielder Julien Faubert is discussing a loan move to Real Madrid. The Hammers gave the Frenchman permission to talk to the Spanish champions after he struggled to secure a sustained run in the first team this season. He is due in the Spanish capital for a medical after a loan fee of £1.5million was agreed. Real's coach, Juande Ramos, has turned to Faubert after turning down Jermaine Pennant and failing to land Wigan's Antonio Valencia.

West Ham signed Faubert from Bordeaux for £6.1m in the summer of 2007 but the Frenchman tore his achilles tendon in a pre-season match only weeks later, an injury which kept him out of action for over six months. Faubert has made 24 appearances this season and has proved himself versatile, regularly making the switch between right-back and right midfield. Ramos reportedly regarded Faubert as a last option after hopes of a more expensive deal faded.

Chief executive Scott Duxbury told the club's website: "Julien has struggled to get into Gianfranco Zola's team this season - and despite the high hopes we had for him when he joined us 18 months ago, he has not had the best of times. He had asked the manager about a possible move, and we felt it right to let him talk to Real Madrid. If it does not happen then we will, of course, welcome Julien back into the squad. I was first contacted by Madrid on Friday morning - and after extensive negotiations, we have agreed in principle a deal that would see them paying us a £1.5million fee to take Julien until the end of the season. His long-term future would then be reviewed in the summer, with a significant transfer fee payable should Madrid want to take up their option. If Julien does go on loan, then we will look to quickly bring in a replacement."

Also on the way out could be Calum Daveport. Several papers today report that Wolves are set to complete the £3million signing of West Ham's unsettled defender. The 25-year-old, whose move to Bolton fell through two weeks ago, is desperate to leave Upton Park after falling out of favour with Hammers boss Gianfranco Zola. Birmingham and Cardiff have also been linked with the former Coventry man, but Wolves boss Mick McCarthy is ready to offer him a three-year deal at Molineux.

With the transfer window set to slam shut in a matter of days, optimism abounds at United. January was supposed to be a month of asset-stripping at Upton Park but instead it has been a time of bounty and reward as West Ham continue to prosper under Gianfranco Zola’s management. "Life has started again for us," said Zola. "It has been a great month and I believe that is because of all the things we went through in October. Because of that we are now strong mentally, physically and technically. It is good because we are building something important. You can sense that and smell the atmosphere around the club."

Matthew Upson can certainly sense it. The defender has blossomed into a full England international at West Ham, a far cry from his frustrations as a youngster when he failed to break through under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. He joined the Gunners from Luton but made just 35 appearances before being allowed to leave, for Birmingham. Wenger has admitted he remains an admirer of the central defender, and was linked with a transfer window move for the player, now 29.

Upson could be forgiven for criticising Wenger's policy now, having been allowed to leave, but instead he offered praise for the Frenchman's style. "Arsene's recruitment of young players is second to none," Upson said. "He is the master at it and has brought a lot of young players from nowhere into that team and they have gone on to become top players. That is such a great boost for a football club because financially they can bring a player in for next to nothing. It's very impressive. I learnt from the training every day [at Arsenal]. There were so many top players there at the time so you take good habits from all of them."

Upson is now expected to sign a new three-year deal this summer after renewed interest from today’s opponents was rebuffed in recent weeks. Speaking to the media last night last night he revealed he snubbed the chance to go back to Arsenal because the future is brighter at West Ham. The England defender was happy to pledge his loyalty to Upton Park even though big guns have reportedly been circling in the transfer window. Gunners boss Arsene Wenger inquired about Upson, who he sold for £3m in 2003, but was knocked back by West Ham despite their financial problems.

It was an admission by Wenger that he made a mistake by letting Upson go and it looks an even worse piece of business now as Arsenal's defensive frailties are the reason why their Champions League status is in danger. Unlike Craig Bellamy, who fled Upton Park as soon as Manchester City came calling, Upson said he wanted to be a part of what Gianfranco Zola is trying to build. He will be desperate to prove his point against his former club today, having become an England regular under Fabio Capello.

"There was speculation about me leaving," admitted Upson. "But I was always confident I was stopping around. The club pointed out their intentions at the start of the transfer window and, to be fair to them, they've pretty much stuck with them, which is impressive. It shows there is an intention for success at the club and as long as there is that here, I'm enjoying myself and all the other players are and I think the manager is too. There's nothing like a few wins to get everyone smiling, and especially at home. But we have the same thoughts we would have with any away game." Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Hull confirmed West Ham’s resurgence in form and confidence with four wins out of the last five Premier League games. That has raised Zola’s stock but now comes a test of resolve with today’s trip to Arsenal followed by the visit of Manchester United next weekend. "There is no reason why we shouldn’t go there and take something from it," said Upson. "We’re ready for it."

As United move across London to the Emirates today Gianfranco Zola insists he is looking forward to pitting his wits against one of the managers he most looks up to at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday. After two consecutive 2-0 wins against Hartlepool United and Hull City, Zola believes there is no better place to see just how far the Hammers have come under his stewardship. "I think the players right now feel they can go out and compete with Arsenal, even away. That is great. I'm looking forward to this game and it is one of those games where everything will come out," Zola said. "I said it last time they were here, that he [Arsene Wenger] is one of the mangers I look up to. The way he manages is like what we want to do over here as well. We want to develop the players we have got and make them better. We want to achieve success by doing that."

Like the West Ham manager, Wenger has demonstrated his commitment to blooding youngsters in the Barclays Premier League and the Sardinian belies it offers a viable alternative to spending vast sums on more established players. "It is more or less the same way as we are doing here," Zola said. "There are two ways. You can either spend £200m and get top class players and win titles like that or another way you go around and get young players and develop them to build up your team. It takes longer but that is the way I prefer to build up a team."

Zola, who is expected to name the same squad that beat Hull City on Wednesday, must decide whether to field Savio, the latest recruit to his project in north London, or stick with the in-form forward line that has served him so well in recent weeks. It is a choice he admits to being happy to face. "It is a nice problem to have. My way to select them is they select themselves. The way they play, the way they perform. The players know that the best one will play. The one that does well will be in the team."

Although Arsenal are currently sit eight point behind leaders Manchester United at the summit, Zola is sure that his French counterpart will turn the current Gunners' crop into title contenders before long. "Arsenal are very talented but young. I'm sure they will become a winning team but they need time to improve because the Premier League is a tough place to be a winner in. What he has done for the club is a great thing and he keeps bringing in very good players. Nowadays, it is not easy to compete with teams like Manchester United and Chelsea, even for Arsenal. Personally I believe he is doing a great job. I like the project they are bringing forward and Arsene Wenger is doing well and sooner or later he will get the team winning again."

The last time James Collins turned out at the Emirates Stadium, on 7 April 2007, West Ham United secured a heroic 1-0 victory on the way to their 'Great Escape' from Barclays Premier League relegation. Since then, the Wales international defender had endured a frustrating period, spending ten months battling back to full fitness after suffering a serious knee ligament injury in a reserve team fixture at Portsmouth in January 2008. Now, the 25-year-old is back in the Hammers team and at the top of his game.

Preparing to return to the scene of that memorable afternoon 21 months ago, Collins believes Gianfranco Zola's in-form side have every chance of extending their six-match unbeaten run away from home in north London. "Of course if we play the way we did in the first half against Fulham and go there with the right attitude I think we can give them a good game. We beat them there a couple of years ago and there's no reason why we can't do it again. I think this is the highest I can remember confidence being in my time at the club. Obviously playing games gives you confidence and that's what I'm doing at the minute. I've been a bit unfortunate the last few seasons with injury but I'm playing now and that builds confidence. I'm playing in a great team. Everyone's playing good football and it's a pleasure to be involved in."

Collins insists the Hammers' recent success can be put down to the hard work the players and coaching staff are putting in every day on the training pitch. Manager Zola and first-team coaches Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen are using all their know-how to give United the best possible chance of picking up points in every single match - including Saturday's match at Arsenal. "We split it up in training. We have certain days when we do defending and certain days when we do attacking. It's not just the back-four that are defending well. It is the whole team that is chipping in. The boys are defending from the front. It's a group effort all over the pitch and I think that shows. We're playing football the West Ham way and we're getting results."

The defender, who arrived at the Boleyn Ground from Cardiff City in July 2005, is also quick to heap praise on his team-mates, including central defensive partner Matthew Upson and West Ham United and Wales team-mate Jack Collison. "I think we [myself and Matthew] both complement each others' game quite well. We're both half-decent on the ball and are both aggressive players. From a personal point of view it's just great being back in the team and performing well and I'm just looking forward to every game. Jack has been brilliant. I saw him early doors away with the Under-21s with Wales and the quality he was showing there. To come here and train and be given his chance by Mister, he is showing his class. Hopefully he's working in a good midfield with Valon [Behrami], Scotty [Parker] and Mark [Noble] and all of them are putting in good performances. Long may it continue."

Speaking of Collison, the first time he pulled on a West Ham United shirt at the Emirates Stadium he was an unknown 19-year-old making his Premier League debut. Today, the midfielder will return to Arsenal as a regular in Gianfranco Zola's in-form side and a full Wales international. Now a relative veteran of 15 league and FA Cup appearances, Collison is confident that Zola's team can gain revenge for the 2-0 defeat they suffered on his first ever appearance in claret and blue. With United on a seven-match unbeaten run in all competitions and having not tasted defeat on their travels since 29 October, that confidence is well-founded.

"We're on a really good run of results and we don't want to stop that. We've had good results away at Liverpool [drawing 0-0] and Chelsea [drawing 1-1] this season and we're going to look to go one better and get all three points at Arsenal. I don't see any reason, playing the way we are at the moment, why we can't do that."

Collison was one of a whole host of players who produced the goods during Wednesday evening's home victory over Phil Brown's Tigers. The 20-year-old was involved in many of the hosts' best moments, including a flowing 40th-minute move that saw him crash David Di Michele's cross against the post - one of four occasions on which the Hammers hit the woodwork. While the team's performance left the home supporters leaving the Boleyn Ground purring with pleasure, a typically modest Collison insisted there was more to come from him and his team-mates. The youngster also reserved praise for manager Zola and his coaching staff for the exciting, entertaining brand of football the team is now producing on a regular basis.

"It was a good performance, but I thought we were superb a couple of weeks ago against Fulham. Obviously it's nice when you're playing well, getting results and really pushing up the table and looking ahead of us. The manager and his staff have come in with their ideas and the boys have adapted and there is a real buzz about the place at the moment. Every time we go out on the pitch we are confident and feel like we can take points out of every game we play in." That confidence is clear not only in Collison but also his midfield cohorts Scott Parker, Mark Noble and Valon Behrami. The quartet have started six of the last seven Premier League matches, with Noble's absence from the 2-1 win over Stoke City the only time during that span when the group has not all been involved from the kick-off.

Collison believes that continuity has been key to the understanding the four now have in each others' games. The youngster also alluded to the belief that manager Zola has instilled in them both individually and collectively, belief that has seen Parker in imperious form in front of the back-four and Noble, Behrami and Collison himself all find themselves on the score-sheet in recent weeks. "The midfield has been brilliant. It's been quite settled over the past few weeks and that's made a difference. The manager has given us the freedom to go out there and express ourselves and that's given us confidence. It's made a really big difference. When you've got experienced players like Scotty Parker in there and then the youth of myself, Nobes and Valon, it's working well for the team."

Arsenal (from): Almunia, Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Nasri, Denilson, Song, Eboue, Adebayor, van Persie, Fabianski, Djourou, Diaby, Vela, Ramsey, Bendtner, Gibbs, Wilshere.

West Ham (from): Green, Neill, Collins, Upson, Ilunga, Behrami, Parker, Collison, Noble, Di Michele, Cole, Lastuvka, Nsereko, Tristan, Tomkins, Sears, Faubert, Boa Morte.

Friday, 30 January 2009

The Rabbit That Roared

There was a time, not long ago, when it appeared Carlton Cole would have found the task of hitting a cow's backside with a banjo a considerable challenge, observes Ken Dyer. For all his selfish, powerful play outside the box, he was firing blanks where it mattered most and the Upton Park crowd were letting him have it in spades. Gradually though, with a little help from his friends and his manager, the big West Ham striker has begun to score the goals which were missing from his game - and has won over the doubters in the process.

Cole is keen to pay tribute to Gianfranco Zola, for helping him achieve the best form of his career and win over supporters who had been vocal in their criticism. The striker's goal in Wednesday's 2-0 victory over Hull City was his 10th of the season and equalled a post-war club record set by Tony ­Cottee that had stood for more than two decades. Naturally, Cole is in ebullient mood but he admits his success could not have been achieved without Zola's help off the pitch. In truth, he says, his manager has unleashed the lion in him.

"Claudio Ranieri gave me two options when I was at Chelsea — become a lion or a rabbit," recalls Cole. "For a long time I was a rabbit but I think the lion in me is coming out. At one stage football was just secondary to me. But now I’m thinking I have only got one chance and I’m going to take it with both hands." The former Chelsea youngster is in the form of his life at the moment, to such an extent he was linked with a move to Italian giants Juventus- and a reunion with Ranieri- earlier this month. La Vecchia Signora's alleged interest should not surprise, even if the Italians subsequently denied it. When he was Chelsea manager, Ranieri declared Cole the best youngster with whom he had ever worked. Presumably the Italian kept an eye on the one-time prodigy and has noted that now, at last, Cole has started to fulfil his formidable potential.

Not that he is the finished article, far from it, but he is getting there. His strike on Wednesday night made it five in as many appearances for United, but the 25 year old is still not happy with his record in front of goal. "I need to get more goals, more of the easier ones,” said Cole. "I'm proud - but I just need to keep on going and add more goals to my game." With new found pragmatism he added: "I could have scored a hat-trick against Hull but I musn't be greedy."

Such is Cole's confidence that he was even able to smile after those several glaring misses against the Tigers. That, he admits, is partly down to the more relaxed atmosphere he finds himself playing in now, specifically at home, where he was regularly the target of abuse from frustrated supporters. "It's nice to have the fans on my side now," he said. "When you have a relationship with the fans you can make mistakes and know they are not going to get on your back. That's why it's nice to have them on your side. I've been there when the fans ain't been really great to me and that's been tough. You have to take the rough with the smooth but I'm happy I have them on my side now and they really help me out with my goals."

It's not only the fans who have sat up and taken notice either. Purring with satisfaction at the big striker's current strike rate is the man who could lose the record tomorrow, West Ham legend Cottee. The former striker was at Upton Park on Wednesday night to see Cole score one and miss a few more and he said: "Confidence is the key word for all strikers. I remember that season of 1985, I didn't hit the target for the first seven games while Frank McAvennie was scoring for fun. That spurred me on though and I soon began hitting the back of the net. It's a great feeling when you're on a run like Carlton's because you go out in every game convinced you're going to score. My advice would be not to think about it too deeply but just enjoy it, because those sort of scoring runs don't come along too often in your career.

"Carlton could certainly have scored a hat-trick the other night but I wouldn't be too worried about that if I was him. Strikers usually have to get three chances to score one and although you always want to score more, he's doing fine. I heard someone the other day say some nice things about the rest of Carlton's game but added that he doesn't score enough goals. The harsh reality is, although you might be playing well for the team and doing everything else well, a striker is ultimately going to be judged on how many goals they score. The fans often don't see the runs you make or the hard work you put in. If you're a striker it's the end product which really counts and Carlton is certainly achieving that."

Yet the hottest striker in the Premier League insists he will not allow his current blistering streak to turn him into a big-time Charlie, despite a run of form that has reportedly catapulted him into the thoughts of England boss Fabio Capello. "My personal opinion is that it might be a bit too early to talk about Carlton and England but if he goes on improving as he is, he won't be that far away," insists Cottee. "After all, if Fabio Capello wants to play a big man up front the choice is limited to Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch and Carlton, who is different to the other two."

Cole will lead the line for Gianfranco Zola's side at The Emirates on Saturday, where victory would be the Hammers' seventh in eight matches and could take them seventh in the table, just five points off a Uefa Cup spot. "The statistics will show that this is best form of my career but I've just got to keep on going," said Cole. "I'm not going to let it get to my head. I know what I'm capable of and I just have to keep getting in the right positions." While his record would go by the wayside if Cole scores against Arsenal, Cottee is hoping the former Chelsea man makes it six in a row. "Players are very protective of their records," he admits, "but if West Ham win 1-0 and Carlton scores the goal, I will be happy."

"The boys know what we can do, We're playing well, training even better and people can see how confident we are at the moment," enthuses Cole. "We just need to keep it going now. The keyword for us at the moment is unity, we're at one with each other. Obviously we have a lot of respect for both Arsenal and Manchester United because they're both great teams but we can only go out there and play our game. We're certainly not fazed by the thought of playing Arsenal but on the other hand we're not getting ahead of ourselves because if we go to The Emirates thinking how good we are, we're going to get brushed aside. We just need to carry on with the same things we've been doing so well in the last few weeks. When you step out on that pitch though you have to feel confident. That's the most important thing for a player, to have confidence in your ability to try and get the right result. For me personally I would love to score against any of the top four teams because that would put me on a different level."

The former England U21 international was a trainee at Chelsea during Zola's time at the West London club and enjoyed loan spells at Wolves, Charlton and Aston Villa before settling at the Hammers in 2007. Since Zola took over from Alan Curbishley in September Cole has blossomed with breathtaking effect. "I'm playing with more awareness now," said Cole of the effect of the man he used to play alongside at Chelsea. "That is because the manager has made an effort in trying to make me aware of what's going on around me on the pitch and that only comes with games. When you play more games, the more aware you become of things around you. Now I know I can play at this level, I just need to keep on going."

Like the Lion who develops the taste for blood, Cole admits: "The goals have changed me. I have been playing the same all year, but now I am notching a few and that is all I was missing. You need to follow your own instincts and you only get that when you play more games in the Premier League. I did a lot last season to warrant a place in the squad and I am just happy that everything is working out for me now and I am getting the goals this club deserves."

Whether Cole will get the English place he deserves should not even be open to question. Paul Doyle, writing in The Guardian, sees Cole's rise as another feel good story in what has been a great season for 'Jilted of London'. As Arsenal fans have been denouncing Arsène Wenger for his short-sighted sales of Lassana Diarra and Matthew Upson, and Tottenham have gone down on their knees and pleaded with Jermain Defoe and even Pascal Chimbonda to forgive and forget, for a huge fee, the loudest laugh could yet belong to Carlton Cole, a player passed from pillar-to-post in his nomadic early career. For in Premier League terms, argues Doyle, Cole is now better in the Heskey role than Heskey is. He may have been central to England's wins over Croatia and Belarus, but Heskey's England days are numbered and, since Dean Ashton is crocked and Kevin Davies is (a) nearly 32 and (b) Kevin Davies, Cole is the obvious heir.

Cole boasts all of Heskey's vaunted physical attributes plus a surer touch, superior finishing and a better football brain. As Doyle notes, it is easy to find strikers with better scoring rates than Heskey – and Cole has eight league goals this season to Heskey's four – but Heskey's preposterously poor goal haul is frequently excused on the grounds that he is a selfless grunt whose work enables others to enjoy the glory. Thing is, Cole is better at this side of things too. Last season he had more than three times as many assists as Heskey (indeed, only four forwards – Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Salomon Kalou – contributed more assists than Cole) and that trend has continued this season. Cole, then, has the technique you would expect from a player regularly picked by Gianfranco Zola.

Cole, like Heskey, still sometimes comes across as infuriatingly dozy, as if he needs a few pokes with a cattle prod to convince him to harness his power, but mostly he appears to have found a consistency that has long eluded him. Clearly he is benefiting from a sustained spell of first-team action; though he has been knocking about for years, he has only made 80 first-team starts in his career, exactly the same as Heskey made at Wigan.

The final word on Cole goes to Doyle: An Emile Heskey-a-like who also scores goals? Isn't that a Didier Drogba? Well, not quite. But it's certainly someone who deserves a call from Fabio Capello.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Something Special

Gianfranco Zola feels West Ham are slowly building "something special" at Upton Park after watching his side extend their unbeaten run with a 2-0 win over fast-fading Hull. In-form striker Carlton Cole struck again to take his tally to six in seven games after Italian David Di Michele had put the home side ahead as the Irons consolidated their position in eighth place with the hard work put in by Zola and his team now paying off.

Zola said: "The team is strong mentally, technically and physically and it is good as we are building something important here and you can smell the atmosphere here, I am very pleased to be involved in this. We want to build an atmosphere with fair competition between each other with everybody looking forward to getting into this team. They are enjoying themselves, and that is what we want here. Every time they play, it is always the best game, which is the biggest complement you can give to a team."

Away from the pitch and Zola said he despises the transfer window but still hopes to do some more business before it closes next Monday. The West Ham United boss, who started with new signing Savio Nsereko on the bench for last night's game, is searching for a midfield replacement for Hayden Mullins, who has joined Portsmouth. "If we feel the squad need strengthening we will try and do something but the transfer window is a nightmare and I can’t wait until it’s over," said Zola.

To that end, West Ham appear to have won the race to sign experienced Czech international Radoslav Kovac. He arrives as a ready-made replacement for the recently departed Mullins, a vacancy that has left the Hammers somewhat thin on the ground in central midfield. The club, who are thought to have been trailing 29-year-old Kovac for several weeks, have moved swiftly to land the defensive midfielder in order to fill the void.

United's interest had been confirmed earlier in the week by Spartak Moscow general director Valery Karpin; he said: "We have received a formal proposal for Kovac from West Ham in London, as well as another one in England and Spanish clubs. All of them will be considered, taking into account the views of the player, but the final decision may be taken as early as Wednesday."

Kovac, who currently plays for Spartak Moscow has featured predominantly in midfield throughout his career but can also cover in central defence. A former Czech League winner with Sparta Prague, he is valued around the £4million mark but United will look to take the player on loan initially with view to a permanent deal in the summer.

Kovac began his career with Sigma Olomouc before moving to Sparta Prague in 2003/04 where he was a member of the squad that won the Gambrinus Liga in 2004/05. After two years at Prague he moved to Russia to join Spartak Moscow. Having made his debut for the Czech Republic in their 1-0 win over Romania in October 2004 Kovac has gone on to make 26 appearances for his country, briefly featuring in the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 tournaments.

Despite Kovac's age and United's new found preference for bringing in mostly young talent, the club have been actively seeking an experienced head to complement their relatively young midfield line-up, and is able to challenge immediately for a first team spot. At an imposing 6'3", Kovac would also provide an aerial threat at set pieces- something Gianfranco Zola feels the first team is currently lacking.

Kovac, who is set to fly to England in order to rubber-stamp his move within the next 24 hours, could be involved in the squad that faces Arsenal at the Emirates this weekend alongside United's other new boy Savio Nsereko, who made his debut in last night's 2-0 win against Hull City. Talking to Sovietsky Sport, Kovac confirmed that he rejected a number of other offers in order to play in the Premier League. "The last decision was for me to choose West Ham over Celtic, but my decision was because of the Premier League. West Ham's manager and executives want me. West Ham love Czechs, they already have Jan Lastuvka and Marek Stech in their squad. This year I will be 30 and I only have a few years left before I become known as a veteran, so I want to realise my dream of playing in one of the main championships. Everyone whom I have asked for advice have told me to go, and the examples of Vidic and Pavlyuchenko gives me the motivation - they have both moved to England and succeeded there."

Kovac - who has been on Gianfranco Zola's hit-list for some time - confirmed that the deal had been completed in little more than a day. "Everything happened on Wednesday," he added. "My agents recently started to actively work and they found a few options, but I never really thought my pre-season with Spartak now would be my last one. I haven't even had chance to say goodbye to my team-mates, but I have had a call to say everything is ready and my ticket to London is booked."

One man definitely not coming to Upton Park is Mario Balotelli. Inter Milan remain adamant the teenage striker will not leave the club in this month's transfer window. The 18-year-old is reportedly a target of West Ham, but Inter assistant coach Giuseppe Baresi told the club's website the player is going nowhere. "He is an Inter player and will remain so," Baresi said. Balotelli, an Italy Under-21 international, has also been linked with a loan move in order to gain more first-team experience after making 14 appearances for the Serie A leaders this season. In the meantime he was left out of Inter's squad to face Catania for 'disciplinary reasons', according to coach Jose Mourinho. Reports suggest the teenager was originally included but, upon finding out he was set to spend the entire 90 minutes either on the bench or in the stands, refused to travel.

West Ham's technical director, Gianluca Nani, insists the Hammers have had no contact with Balotelli - a player Hammers manager Gianfranco Zola knows well from his days as assistant Italy Under-21 coach. "I have never talked to Balotelli," Nani told Sky Italia. "I don't even know what his voice sounds like. We are happy like this, and Inter have never called me to complain."

Elsewhere, there is a curious little piece in the Mail where West Ham's much publicised ban on selling players to Tottenham has supposedly coincided with an outbreak of "transfer gloating" emanating from White Hart Lane. The article states that this month's issue of Spurs’ official magazine recalls the biggest deal between the two clubs — Jermain Defoe’s £7million switch five years ago — and that its blatant triumphalist tone will not make for pleasant reading in east London.

Finally, appropos nothing really, I thought I'd print the 'Harry Redknapp Flow Chart' as was sent to me this morning.

West Ham United 2 Hull City 0

Carlton Cole Fires West Ham And Closes On England Call by Tom Dart
Is it time to place the Tigers of Hull City on the Barclays Premier League’s endangered list? Tenth they may be, but this was Hull’s sixth successive league defeat and the concern last night was not just about the result, but how easily West Ham United achieved it... Times
Gianfranco Zola's West Ham In Good Shape by Nick Hoult
Gianfranco Zola does not like the January transfer window. He thinks it rewards lazy manager. He may change his mind at the end of this month. With Craig Bellamy shipped out and the exciting talent of Savio Nsereko brought in, Zola's team are in a fine state of health as the season enters its second half... Telegraph
Zola's Hit Men Blast Past Weak Tigers by Simon Cass
The West Ham fans in the Bobby Moore Stand chanted, 'Who needs Craig Bellamy?' and on the evidence of this display it was hard to disagree with the sentiment. West Ham used the money from Bellamy's £12million sale to Manchester City to bring in Savio Nsereko, a 19-year-old prospect with blistering pace... Mail
Cole Provides A Cutting Edge For Zola's Cavaliers by Jason Burt
Seven undefeated, level on points with seventh-placed Wigan Athletic and they should have scored seven – just as they did the last time Hull played at Upton Park in 1990 when even Steve Potts scored. Such was West Ham's dominance again. These are sweet, sweet times for Gianfranco Zola, fashioning a team in his own exuberant style and making all and sundry believe. Really believe... Independent
Di Michele Runs Riot As Hammers Nail Hull by Sachin Nakrani
These are truly peculiar times for West Ham United. Off the pitch the club continues to be haunted by financial uncertainties but on it they are playing like a side that has won the jackpot. Victory here was their sixth in seven games and was delivered by arguably their best performance of the season. The hosts were dominant throughout and should have scored more than twice. Indeed a repeat of the 7–1 thrashing West Ham inflicted on Hull the last time these sides met here in October 1990 would not have come as a shock... Guardian
Heaven For Zola As Hull Are Humbled by Gideon Brooks
West Ham's record signing Savio Nsereko may have made the bench at Upton Park last night following his £9million move from Brescia, but David Di Michele and Carlton Cole made a convincing case for manager Gianfranco Zola to leave him there... Express

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Savio: The Cockney Fantasista

At age 16, Gianfranco Zola had a choice to make. If you want to succeed, he was told, you need to be out training five times a day. He couldn't do that and go to school, so he gave up school, joined a gym and started to build himself up. At 18 he was signed by Nuorese (in nearby Nuoro, the third city of Sardinia) and within three years he had moved to Torres (in Sassari, the second city of Sardinia), in the Italian third division. Six years on and he was still plugging away, still dreaming of making it to the big time. But there was no sign of a breakthrough. Scouts from the mainland rarely visited. He must have thought his moment would never arrive. "Hmmm, I certainly knew it was going to be difficult," he says. "But never, never, never did I feel defeated or discouraged. What happened occurred naturally because I loved what I was doing."

What happened was that Luciano Moggi, then general manager of Napoli football club, later general director of Juventus and ever a man who can spot a good piece of business, saw Zola in action. "I have been down to Sardinia," he reported, "and I can assure you that this is a little Maradona." In fact, both men were 5ft 6in, but at Napoli Zola soon found himself operating as Maradona's understudy. Zoladona, they called him, and he spent most of his first season watching the great man from the substitutes' bench.

Gradually, stories of his apprenticeship drifted back to Sardinia. In training, Maradona had kicked the ball 20 yards with such spin that it turned all the way back on itself to its master's feet. Zola had watched a few times, then produced an exact replica. Zolito - little Zola - Maradona had said, is truly great. The two men only spent one year together, with Napoli winning the league that season, but in that time as Maradona's understudy Zola says that… well he’ll tell it better.

"I learnt everything from Diego. I used to spy on him every time he trained and learned how to curl a free kick just like him. After one year I had completely changed. I saw him do things in training and in matches I had never even dreamed possible. He was simply the best I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been a good player if I had not played with him at that stage of my career but I do know I wouldn’t have been the player I eventually became."

When Maradona left, due to what Zola will describe only as his having had "a few problems with other things," Zola became the new occupant of his No 10 shirt. In Italy, it is the number given to the fantasista, the fantasy man. So yesterday, when Gianfranco Zola made the decision to hand his new signing Savio Nsereko the West Ham No.10 shirt, the message was clear: You can become as good as me. The Hammers boss beat Arsenal, Chelsea, Roma and his former club Napoli to the signature of the Ugandan-born Germany Under-20 star, and despite admitting he has only seen him play on tape, Zola sees his own reflection when he gazes at his raw protege.

The 19-year-old Nsereko moved from Uganda to Germany when he was two years old and played for 1860 Munich, where he was spotted by Gianluca Nani, who took him to Italy with Brescia. Zola is convinced the German has the all the attributes needed to become a big star in the Premier League and follow in his own footsteps. "We have been following Savio for a while. I saw him on tape a long time ago and I have seen him on television recently," he said. "I think he is very similar to the player I was when I was 19 years old. When I was that age I was not the same player I was later, but I was very good at taking players on and that is one of the main qualities that makes the difference between a normal player and a special player."

Zola believes West Ham fans are in for a treat if Savio is given time to settle in at Upton Park. "He is already a top player, but on top of that he needs to build other qualities and that is why he is here," stated Zola. "I am going to try to give him the other bits that are missing in his game to take him a step higher. I think he is the type of player who catches the eye. In modern football there are not many players with that ability. He's one of those players who in one-on-one situations is deadly. He is quick, the kind of player I like and who is very important to be in the team. He creates something for you. He can play well with Carlton Cole but he can play in different positions. He is adaptable and is willing to learn to improve."

The Hammers smashed their transfer record by splashing an estimated £9million on the Ugandan-German from Italian Serie B, but Zola insists it is not a gamble. The fact that he elected to give Savio the shirt number of the fantasista is evidence enough of the huge faith he has in the talent of the Germany Under-20 international. For his part, Savio says he wants to follow in the footsteps of his new manager – and insists he has moved to England to learn from the master. "I spoke to the coach and I know Gianluca Nani very well and it is important to have someone I know at the club and who believes in me," said Savio. "I have heard a lot about Zola as a player because he was a big player. I don’t want to say I am like him but he had very good characteristics and good technique and I can learn from him."

Addressing the media throng yesterday in perfect English, Savio added: "I am very happy to be here and am proud to have the possibility of playing for a club like West Ham. I was happy [to move to England] because West Ham is a big club and a big story so I was very excited. I know a lot about the manager. I saw him play and he was a great player and I think he is also a great manager and can improve me a lot. I will try to do my best to improve and help the team to get better. I know it's a big responsibility [to wear the No 10] but I think I know what I can do and I'm happy for that and that's it. I see myself that I hope I can help us. I have to improve a lot and I will try to improve and get better in training every day."

When Gianfranco Zola took over the helm at West Ham he was the unanimous choice of the United board. After Alan Curbishley took the decision to walk, claiming he had been undermined over transfers, it gave the club the opportunity to recruit a different style of manager. A coach. Duxbury came close to appointing Roberto Donadoni but then, in Rome, met Zola. He read through the Football Project and found it chimed with his own ambition. "He's got an incredible reputation as a winner and he wouldn't do anything to risk that so he agreed to join on the basis of the Football Project," Duxbury said.

"He believed it was the way to achieve success and it's what excites him. What's lost in football is that people think the only way to be successful is to buy great players, but why can't you coach them into great players? Take Freddie Sears and let Zola work with and teach him how to be a striker. If you buy Kaka you defeat the object, you buy success. We want to create it." Zola brings to Upton Park a clear and defined commitment to attacking football, underpinned with steel. Zola's way is clear. "I have my system," he said. "I like to train a lot with the ball with a lot of intensity in the sessions. I know my training sessions are very demanding, but they are always with the ball and always with a lot of enjoyment. The players have already said to me they like it very much."

As for the style of play fans can eventually expect: "The idea is to get to the point where we play offensive football as much as possible." That commitment is in the Sardinian's blood, of course, but developed during those years he spent at Napoli, first as Maradona's under-study then as his team-mate. The rotund genius was despised by Three Lions fans for scoring a dishonest goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. His blatant cheating was captured on TV but it never detracted from the skill and verve he brought to games. He never stopped encouraging Zola.

"Maradona has been a great influence on me. When I first met him I was only 23 and just a young player trying to get better and I had him in from of me. The best player in the world, so I felt lucky," Zola said. "When you have that it inspires you to do better and it was a challenge to get my level of football to his. He spoke to me a lot. Anybody who has played with Maradona can tell you he is a lovely, simple guy. Then he was the best player in the world by far and probably the best player of all time. But it was easy to talk to him. He was humble and genuine. We had a particularly good relationship and I used to stay longer on the training ground with him, trying free-kicks and playing small games. My challenge was to get my level of football to his. What I liked about Diego was he had always had the right solution on the pitch. I hope we can do that here at West Ham."

It developed Zola's commitment to attacking football. "I was a striker and was a player who liked to play the ball and enjoy myself so that is my mentality," he said. "When I went to Naples we had a team with Maradona, Careca, Alemao – quality players – and we used to play good-looking football. That is where my ideas on playing come from. When I used to look at them in games and in training, there were many times when I thought I’d never get in the team. They were so good but I never gave up. I always said to myself ‘If I want to play in this team I will have to get better than them’."

Zola is hoping his mentality will rub off on his young Hammers. He said: "My mentality was to always improve, it was a good outlook. And it should be enjoyable for the players. If they are enjoying it the results you get are much better. I’m not pretentious to say everything will be all right. So I need the crowd to be patient and support us all the time. I don’t have a magic wand. But it feels good to be at this club."

He also hopes that patience extends towards his new number ten. Savio will face Hull tonight if his international clearance comes through. "We have expectations of Savio, but we do not forget that the boy is 19 years old and he has come here for the future" said Zola. "We are going to try an improve him and make him a better player. We know that he has got great potential and can become a top player. But everybody needs to be patient. He wants to improve and we want to help him, but he also needs time to settle. The reason why we bought Savio is that we saw the potential which belongs to special players. We like to gamble, but I do not think that Savio is a gamble. He will become an important player but we have to allow him time to get used to the rhythm of the Premier League. I am confident he will, he is a strong boy and he is mature."

A New Philosophy

West Ham United chief executive Scott Duxbury believes that the club is moving in the right direction following the signing of Savio Nsereko. Duxbury, talking to Sky Sports News in the wake of Nsereko's unveiling yesterday morning, reiterated that the club are determined to hang on to their key players despite constant media reports claiming an imminent fire-sale due to Chairman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson's financial difficulties. He also repeated claims, first published in the Independent last week, that the days of selling star players to local rivals Tottenham are well and truly over.

"The January transfer window is perplexing," said Duxbury. "You're in the middle of a race and then suddenly you've got to lose some of your players. You should be able to get to the end of the race with the squad you've got - and we're doing well. We didn't want to lose any players because I think we can achieve something quite special this season. There is a change of philosophy at this football club; I keep referring to the football project, it's a business plan that we stick to [in order] to deliver success.

"Part of it is that we need to be aware of our fans expectations, and we need to be aware who our local rivals are. There's a massive rivalry between ourselves and Tottenham. As I've said, it's nothing against Tottenham but why on earth should we sell any player that would strengthen their team? We're competitive, we're in a competitive league. I want to finish above Tottenham year after year and I want to deliver success - so I won't be selling any of our players to our local rivals, it just makes no sense to me."

The United CEO also emphasised that Scott Parker, Matthew Upson and Robert Green would stay at the club. The trio have been linked with a move away from the Hammers this transfer window, given West Ham owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson has been hit by the credit crunch. But Duxbury - while admitting there has been 'a lot of interest' in the players - says the club are determined to keep hold of all three.

Asked what was the latest on the contractual situation with the trio, Duxbury revealed: "Throughout this window there was a lot of interest in all of those players, some of it real and some of it through the media. I contacted every single player, reassured them that we didn't want to sell them and got the commitment back from them that they didn't want to go. I have spoken to their agents. When the window shuts we will be sitting down and we will be talking about extending their contracts - and all of them are happy to stay."

The club have reinvested some of the £14million they recently received for Craig Bellamy on record signing Savio. Duxbury restated his pledge to fans that the club will keep their best players as well as look to strengthen Gianfranco Zola's squad. He said: "I tried to reassure everybody at the start of the window that we would be keeping our best players and where possible, we would try and strengthen. I think today is a vindication of our activity during this window."

He also stressed to fans that the club's finances are fine, adding: "It's robust, it's absolutely robust - it's the nature of the football project. We have a manager that doesn't require external investment. He knows that what he sells, he can keep, so he can constantly evolve this football club. He's very, very happy with the squad."

Scott Duxbury says he is looking forward to clearing West Ham United's name at the forthcoming hearing into the ongoing Carlos Tevez affair. The latest step in the ongoing legal battle regarding Tevez and possible compensation for Sheffield United is a new hearing to determine whether the Hammers broke further rules relating to the final three games of the season - games seen by the most recent tribunal, who ruled in favour of the Championship club, as having paramount importance to the club's final league placings.

Yet Duxbury, who recently appointed a new legal team to oversee the case, remains adamant that United would ultimately be vindicated. "We welcome it absolutely," he said. "It's an affair that seems to have gone on for far too long now and this is an opportunity for us once and for all to show that we did absolutely nothing wrong. We didn't break any undertakings to the Premier League - we absolutely adhered to them. Myself and (former executive chairman) Eggert Magnusson of course met with Tevez's representatives, that's what you would do as a competent official of a football club. We often meet with players' representatives and this is an opportunity once and for all to clear it up and prove that we did absolutely nothing wrong, so we absolutely welcome it."

Duxbury also hit back at his critics, stating that nothing would deter him from achieving his ambitions for the club. "I have been at this football club for many, many years now, I've got the absolute support of the Board and the Chairman and I'm absolutely confident in what I'm trying to achieve," he added. "Of course Tevez is a distraction, but there are numerous distractions - and I think my job here is just to guide the football club with the board through these distractions and make sure that my management team, which I've got complete confidence in, is absolutely focused on delivering success. There may be people out there who want to criticize, there may be people who want to distract us, but it simply won't happen. Nothing will deter us from delivering the success that we know we can achieve."

Asked if he would ever consider resigning over the affair, he said: "No, absolutely not. As I have said, I have got the complete support of my board and my chairman and I've done absolutely nothing wrong." Duxbury also called for trust from the fans. "We have got to get trust back with our fans and this is why I took the unprecedented step at the start of the window to try and reassure the fans what the club is about, what we are trying to achieve, and I think that it's so far so good. I can talk all I want and reassure the fans the top players aren't going to leave but I think the fans will wait till the 1st of February. What I can say is that they won't be disappointed, the top players are not leaving and we are trying to reinforce."

Duxbury also admitted there was never a chance of Craig Bellamy joining Tottenham. The Hammers flatly refused to consider an offer for Bellamy this month because they suspected Spurs were trying to unsettle him. Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp denied this but Spurs backed out of the transfer, allegedly striking a pact with Manchester City which allowed City a free run at Bellamy in return for dropping their interest in Wigan’s Wilson Palacios, who then moved to White Hart Lane. Duxbury told Sky Sports News: "I made it quite clear to Craig that there wasn't any possibility of him joining Tottenham. Why on earth should we sell any player to our rivals that would strengthen their team?"

He reiterated Spurs can no longer expect to plunder Upton Park for talent like Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick. "It just makes no sense to me. I won't sell any of our players to our local rivals," said Duxbury. "We need to be aware of our fans’ expectations and to be aware who our local rivals are and there is a massive rivalry between ourselves and Tottenham."

Of Bellamy's move to Manchester City, Duxbury added: "I am not sure it is a sale, because a sale implies that we wanted to do it - which we didn't. We made it quite clear to Craig that we wanted him to stay. We didn't want to lose any player because I think we can do something quite special this season. I think it might have been six bids that we turned down. I wouldn't say there was animosity. We didn't want him to go and he left, so that is never a comfortable situation. But as far as I am concerned Craig is no longer a West Ham player, he's not my concern. My concern is (new signing) Savio and the rest of the West Ham players."

Duxbury also confirmed that rumours of Bellamy going on strike were wide of the mark. "He did not go on strike. On the Friday that we had the meeting he made it quite clear to me that he wanted to leave and join Tottenham. He was in no frame of mind to train so we both agreed that it was probably best he went home and considered his position. At that point I was still hopeful he would reconsider and continue to play for West Ham, but as the days went on it became quite clear that wasn't a possibility. I made it quite clear to Craig that there wasn't any possibility of him joining Tottenham. I think he understood that the transfer was never going to be a possibility - and he thought again."

Bellamy also denied reports that he refused to play against Fulham, a game won 3-1 by the Hammers. "I've heard all this talk about me going on strike but I have absolutely no idea where it has come from," he said. "I cannot understand it. Maybe in the past I have done some things that I shouldn't have - but this one is not true."

Meanwhile, Sheffield United chairman Kevin McCabe has responded to charges by writer Martin Samuel of further third-party interefence with regard to the transfer of Matthew Spring from Luton to Charlton. Spring, who was on loan at Sheffield United was allowed to prematurely end his season-long arrangement with the Blades in order to sign a permanent deal with Charlton - but, according to Samuel, only on the proviso that he sit out Charlton's FA Cup fourth round clash with Sheffield, which the Yorkshire club won 2-1.

Speaking in a club statement posted on Sheffield United's website on Monday evening, McCabe said: "This is an outrageous article and wholly inaccurate. We have not broken any Football Association and Football League rules. For some time now Mr Samuel - whether at The Times, his past employers, or at the Daily Mail where he now works - has pursued a crusade against Sheffield United. As usual his reports are without foundation and I suggest he concentrates his time on reporting the truth rather than spurious allegations. I gather Martin is a West Ham supporter so, maybe, in some clumsy way, he believes his regular attacks on the Blades helps to protect their wrongdoings over the Tevez affair."

The Sheffield United fans have now orchestrated an online petition to argue "Martin Samuels (biased journalist) should be sacked." If we ignore for a minute that they have even failed to get the man's name right, a closer inspection of the some 850 signatures (eg... Wilfred Whippetsniffer, Clungepipe McTwunt, Tripe Ekerslike and Big Gay Blade) reveals things are not all they seem.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Damned United

"I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing. I contributed. I would hope they would say that, and I would hope somebody liked me."
Brian Clough

This is nothing to do with West Ham United but it is a quiet night and I thought I would post the following video. It is the newly released trailer for the upcoming film version of the excellent David Peace novel The Damned Utd. The book is concerned principally with the 44 fateful days its hero, Brian Clough, spent as manager at Elland Road, Leeds, after taking over from Don Revie in 1974. "It imagines Clough exactly as he always wanted to imagine himself: a protagonist of Shakespearean proportion, outrageous, maniacal, big-hearted, vindictive, brilliant, pissed - a Coriolanus of the dug-out," reads the Observer review. "The book takes Clough's voice - that inspired nasal bombast that was once such a feature of British life - and turns it inwards. Peace attempts to see the world as Clough might have seen it; the book is told in a stream of consciousness diary form, a page or three a day for each of the purgatorial 44 days at Leeds, with flashbacks to his triumphs at Derby County a couple of years earlier." In short, it is a football manager's guide to heaven and hell and it is a staggering work of art.

The full Observer book review: The genius of the life of Brian

How it will translate to the big screen is anybody's guess. Directed by Tom Hooper (John Adams, Elizabeth I), adapted by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland) and starring Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, Blood Diamond, The Queen) it is due for release March 27. To say I am looking forward to it is quite an understatement.

The Pearl Of Africa Is Now On Show

Well, it's official...West Ham United have finally unveiled the signing of 19-year-old forward Savio Nsereko from Brescia Calcio. A brief statement on the club website reads:

West Ham United are delighted to announce the signing of Germany Under-20 international Savio Nsereko from Brescia Calcio on a four-and-a half-year contract.

The 19-year-old forward, who can play wide or through the middle, chose the chance to play under Gianfranco Zola ahead of long-standing interest from some of the continent's leading clubs. The fee is undisclosed, although the club confirm it is a significant investment.

Savio, who will wear the No10 shirt, has made his name with Brescia, who are well-placed to secure promotion back to Serie A this season. His last outing for the Italian club saw him score two spectacular goals in a minute in the 4-0 win against Pisa on Saturday 17 January.

A West Ham United delegation led by technical director Gianluca Nani flew to Brescia in the middle of last week to secure his services. When terms had been agreed with both club and player, Savio made the reverse trip to England over the weekend to meet Gianfranco Zola and finalise the deal. He passed his medical on Monday and, subject to international clearance, could even make his debut on Wednesday night against Hull City.

"We are delighted to sign Savio, particularly with the fierce competition for his services across Europe," Scott Duxbury, the West Ham chief executive, said. "He is an exciting prospect, who Gianfranco Zola believes will prove a valuable asset for this club now and in the years to come. It is a significant investment and shows our determination to continue moving this club forward."

Despite interest from a host of European clubs, including Bayern Munich, Juventus, Roma and Napoli, the Telegraph states the Ugandan born striker was encouraged to move to London because of the opportunity to work with Zola. It is also true Gianluca Nani‘s father in-law, Luigi Corioni, is the president of the Serie B club from which the player moves, and that Nani knows the player well after being responsible for taking him to Italy from Hertha Berlin in 2005 when Nsereko was just 16. Writing in the Mirror, Darren Lewis claims Savio had been on the club's radar for several months - even before Craig Bellamy demanded to leave Upton Park.

Although the final fee is undisclosed, the Times reports it is almost certainly greater than West Ham’s previous biggest outlay, the £7.5 million spent signing Bellamy from Liverpool in 2007. The Mail states previous reports suggested that West Ham had agreed to pay Brescia £5million, which could rise to almost £10million depending on the success of the forward. The Guardian are none the wiser, but suggests a figure in the region of £9million to make Nsereko the new club record transfer. The Mirror also has the same number in mind.

The Independent writes that the versatile Savio, who has scored three goals in 17 games for Brescia this season, will be expected to fill the void created by Craig Bellamy's £14million transfer window switch to Manchester City. It is inevitable that such comparisons will be drawn (and perhaps invited), especially as the Ugandan-German inherits the No 10 shirt by vacated by Bellamy following the Welshman's acrimonious departure.

The signing will reassure fans who had feared the club would only be a selling club during the January transfer window, states the BBC. Owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson has been beset by financial problems in recent months and is considering selling the club. But other than Bellamy, who was determined to leave Upton Park, West Ham have only sold fringe players Matthew Etherington, Lee Bowyer and Hayden Mullins.

Gianfranco Zola is now excited about working with Savio, but acknowledges that the former Brescia star will require the opportunity to find his feet in England. When asked about the Germany youth international, Zola told Sky Sports News: "We have expectations of him, but we do not forget that the boy is 19 years old and he has come here for the future. We are going to try an improve him and make him a better player. We know that he has got great potential and can become a top player. But everybody needs to be patient. He wants to improve and we want to help him, but he also needs time to settle. The reason why we bought Savio is that we saw the potential which belongs to special players. We like to gamble, but I do not think that Savio is a gamble."

Meanwhile, Savio expressed his delight at sealing his move to East London. The youngster, who has relatives living in London, was born in the Ugandan capital of Kampala before his family moved to the German city of Munich when he was just two years old. Speaking in perfect English, he said: "I am very happy to be here and am proud to have the possibility of playing for a club like West Ham. I was happy [to move to England] because West Ham is a big club and a big story so I was very excited. I know a lot about the manager. I saw him play and he was a great player and I think he is also a great manager and can improve me a lot. I will try to do my best to improve and help the team to get better. I know it's a big responsibility [to wear the No10] but I think I know what I can do and I'm happy for that and that's it. I see myself that I hope I can help us. I have to improve a lot and I will try to improve and get better in training every day."

In other news, this morning's Sun reports Cardiff City have rejected West Ham’s £5million bid for Joe Ledley. Everton, Spurs, Wigan, Fulham and Stoke are said to be watching the midfielder too. Bluebirds chairman Peter Ridsdale is quoted as saying: "Joe is not for sale." The Times reveal Sunderland have opened negotiations with United over the £3million capture of defensive outcast Calum Davenport.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Savio Nsereko- The Last German

With everyone in the free and right thinking world (with the exception of the club itself) seemingly aware that we have signed Savio Nsereko, I thought I would post this rare interview/profile I discovered in the dark depths of Al Gore's internet. It appears to be a couple of weeks old and my German isn't the best these days so apologies for the occasional stilted phrase and incongruous fact (given the latest developments).

Full name: Savio Nsereko
Date of birth: July 27, 1989
Birthplace: Kampala, Uganda
Nationality: German
2nd nationality: Ugandan
EU passport: Yes
Height: 176 cms/ 5.7ft
Weight: 73 kgs

In former times there was Matthäus, Klinsmann, Völler or Häßler - today it is Savio Nsereko. The U-19 King of Europe keeps the German flag flying high in Italy with Brescia Calcio. But for how much longer? Half of Europe courts the attacking player- and also Bayern Munich has him in on their radar.

The Last German

There are players whose names portray their heritage, that sound German by their very essence. Jürgen Klinsmann for example, or Rudolf Völler. Savio Nsereko is not one of them. Nsereko was born on July 27, 1989 in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Yet apart from the national language of English, or the dialect Swahili, he retains little else from his formative years. It was in Munich where he grew up and it was in German that he learned to communicate, fully embracing the Bavarian lifestyle. That remained the case up until three years ago, when Italy came into his life.

Since then Savio Nsereko has represented the German flag with pride in the Italian Serie B. In the summer of 2005 the then 16-year-old moved club and country, swapping the familiarity of his first club, 1860 Munich, for an unknown adventure with Brescia Calcio.

Nsereko would be the latest member of a long line of German heroes, who arrived in Italy to seek fame and honour. Ludwig Janda was the pioneer, then the Schnellingers and Hallers, followed later by Matthäus, Klinsmann and Völler. Now Nsereko is the sole standard barer of this exalted tradition, the last German in Italy.

But for how much longer will he ply his trade in the second league in the country of the World Champions. The question is about to be answered.

Interest From Bavaria

Brescia president Gino Corioni, who has already brought Luca Toni and Roberto Baggio to Lombardy, openly admitted in a discussion on Radio Kiss Kiss that Nsereko's prospective buyers stand in a very long queue: "Large clubs, Italian and foreign ones, have already approached me about Savio. Also Bayern Munich have been in very close contact."

Napoli Hot Candidate

As revealed by La Gazzetta dello Sport, Napoli, Palermo and Genoa have long been the most persistent prospective buyers. Information leaked by the largest Italian sports daily disclosed Napoli's director of sport Pierpaolo Marino has already tabled an offer of five million euros.

Of course, the southern Italians have a good relationship with the Rondinelle; Slovak midfield starlet Marek Hamsik, Italian international defender Fabiano Santacroce and Daniele Mannini were all transferred in from Brescia in the last few years.

"When Marek Hamsik was 19 years old, there was not as much interest in him as there is now with Savio" revealed Corioni, speaking of his German jewel. A starring role in the Under 19 European Championship, where he scored one goal and had four assists on his way to be named player of the tournament, was more than enough to provoke the attention. Since when, Brescia have had to live with the fact that almost every week brings a new suiter for their prize asset.

It is heavily reported in the English media that West Ham United are the latest club to have Nsereko's name on it's purchase list. However the London club, due to the financial crisis, might at the moment have a difficult problem making the lucrative offer that would be needed to secure his services.

Uganda, Germany, Italy

Nsereko remains unaffected by the clamouring attention and attendant wild predictions for a spectacular future.

"The interest flatters me, but at the moment I am concentrating completely on Brescia", he told internet site Golmania. "I would like to win promotion with Brescia into Serie A."

Nsereko's history, itself, sounds like a modern football fairy tale. At the age of just two years he was taken with his family from Kampala to Munich. Once he was of an age, he then spent six years with TSV 1860 Munich, steadily progressing with the Lions through all their youth teams. It was at the age of 15 that the lure of Italian interest first became apparent. Instead of trying his luck in Munich, it did not take Savio long to decide to accept the offer from Brescia and succumb to the pull of Italy. He departed in the summer of 2005, aged 16, the minimum age limit allowed by FIFA for international transfer among European Union nations.

"I dreamed always of making my money as a professional in Italy. To put it simply, Italian football fascinated me," Nsereko explained to the German press. "Others like the combative football in England or the elegant football in Spain. I like the tactical and technical approach in Italy."

A Little Like Owen

His football style does not seem to correspond to the cynical result-orientated football of the Italians at all. "I live by my speed", says Nsereko, rather than by strength. Indeed at just under 5ft 8", the relatively diminutive Nsereko needs to be terribly quick- but it is a speed allied with excellent technical abilities and exceptional football instinct.

With his stature and breath-taking dribbling, he is somewhat reminiscent of the young Michael Owen. Others have compared him to Simao. A maker and taker of goals, equally comfortable as an orthodox winger or operating centrally further up the field.

Yet, of fame and glamour the flying forward has little or no interest.

Indeed, his actions on and off the pitch gives us hope for the new German generation. The glittering world of the modern footballer's existence is rather strange to him. Compared with the Beckhams and Ronaldos, Nsereko is defined in contra-distinction.

Inter? No Thanks

A few months ago he received a solicitation from Milanese giants Inter. Nsereko thought hard but kindly declined.

"I am a young player and need to practice and play. It would not have help me there if I practiced with those stars only to watch them from the grandstand at the weekend," explained Savio. "A change at that time would have been simply not intelligent."

Perhaps this grounded personality has something to do with his first professional coach in Italy. It was under the guidance of the imposing Zdenek Zeman that he made his Brescia debut in May 2006 against FC Crotone. He gained more chances in 2007–08.

Break-Through With The U-19s

The real break-through, though, came only in the past summer with the U-19,s with the title secured by the victorious Germans. By the end every scout and manager was aware of Nsereko and the whereabouts of Brescia.

"Before the tournament the Brescia coach Nedo Sonetti had the thought to keep me with the team rather than let me participate", he recently told Mediagol. "Thank God we decided, together with President Corioni, to go for it."

Roy Millar, UEFA's technical observer, bestowed upon Nsereko the 'Player of the Tournament' award, saying: "The best player in the tournament for me has been Nsereko. He can go inside on his right foot to make you a goal, or can go wide left and get in behind defenders."

It was a defining moment for Savio, who was about to miss the biggest game of his career to date. In the semi-final he saw his second yellow card and was suspended for the final game against his adopted country of Italy.

Football's New Morality

Hayden Mullins has joined the growing list of transfer window departures, with Portsmouth completing the signing of the combative United midfielder for an undisclosed fee (thought to be in the region of £2million) this morning. Pompey boss Tony Adams has been looking to bolster his midfield all month after losing Lassana Diarra to Real Madrid and Papa Bouba Diop to a long-term injury, while West Ham have decided to let Mullins move on as Gianfranco Zola looks to trim his squad and balance the books at Upton Park.

Mullins has agreed terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal and passed a medical to join Pompey. The midfielder could make his debut in tomorrow's Premier League clash with Aston Villa, live on Sky Sports 1. "Hayden has been on our radar for some time," said Portsmouth executive chairman Peter Storrie. "He will add strength to our midfield. Central midfield is an area we have needed to strengthen - that's why we brought in two players."

Mullins' move comes just two days after his final appearance for the Hammers, as a substitute in the 2-0 FA Cup win over Hartlepool. The 29-year-old has spent the past five years at Upton Park having become Alan Pardew's first signing back in October 2003, when he joined from Crystal Palace. He went on to make over 200 appearances for the Hammers but sadly missed out on the 2006 FA Cup Final having been sent off the week before.

Mullins told the club's website: "It was a little bit of a shock. I trained on Sunday with West Ham after the game on Saturday and then it all happened very quickly, but I'm very pleased to have joined. It was a great experience to have worked under Gianfranco Zola but it's a great challenge here to come and work with some really talented players. I enjoyed my time at West Ham but I was there for five years and thought that maybe it was time for a change. Portsmouth are a club with a lot of history. They won the FA Cup last year, so I'm very excited to be here."

Gianfranco Zola revealed that he allowed Hayden Mullins to leave as he could no longer guarantee him first team football. Zola, speaking on the official site this morning, stated that Mullins had asked to join Portsmouth having started in just eight of his 21 appearances for the Hammers this season. "I did not want to lose him but at this point in his career he wanted to play regularly and I respect his wishes," said Zola. "He asked me if he could talk to Portsmouth and I could have said 'no' but he is a man that has shown this club a lot of respect. He has been loyal and it would not have been fair to stand in his way."

Exodus: who's left West Ham since the end of last season (courtesy of KUMB)

Sold: John Paintsil (Fulham, £1m); Bobby Zamora (Fulham, £5.3m); Anton Ferdinand (Sunderland, £8m); George McCartney (Sunderland, £6m); Matthew Etherington (Stoke, £3m); Craig Bellamy (Man City £14m), Hayden Mullins (£2m). Total £39.3m.

Released: Freddie Ljungberg; Richard Wright; Nobby Solano.

Currently on loan: Jimmy Walker (Colchester Utd); Kyel Reid (Wolves); Lee Bowyer (Birmingham); Nigel Quashie (Wolves); Joe Widdowson (Grimsby Town).

Meanwhile, Scott Parker insists he sees his long-term future at Upton Park. The midfielder has been linked with a January move away from the Hammers, with Manchester City having already failed with a bid. With Craig Bellamy having already joined City, Parker was keen to reiterate he has no plans to follow his former team-mate out of the club, amid reports he will be offered a new contract by West Ham. The England international admits he has no control over the speculation, but says he is happy to be playing for Gianfranco Zola's side.

"Do I see my long-term future at West Ham? Yes," Parker said in the Daily Telegraph. "The team are playing well under the new management and with the lads here, we've got something that's really good. I'm happy, I'm enjoying myself and I feel I'm playing some good stuff. I'm owned by West Ham and I get paid by West Ham. I want to play football and that's it, everything else is out of my hands. If someone rings me tomorrow and says, 'We're selling you', I can't do anything about that. But I'm a West Ham player and until anyone tells me any different that's the way it is."

Meanwhile, Mark Noble feels the Hammers would struggle to cope without the influence of Parker, if he moved on. Noble said: "Bellamy is going to be a great miss for us. He was a good lad and great in the changing room, but we've proved we can live without him. But Scott Parker? No, I don't think we could. He's such a great player for us. He just sits there, gets the play going, makes great tackles and takes responsibility all the time. Playing in midfield with him is great. He's a fantastic player and always has been. He's very important to us and hopefully we will keep him. I'll be happy if this transfer window closes and we've still got him."

On the transfer front, several media outlets are expecting West Ham to confirm today the signing of striker Savio Nsereko from Brescia. The Mail are reporting a deal worth £9million and say Gianfranco Zola has seen enough of Nsereko to be suitably impressed. The youngster could even play in Wednesday's clash with Hull City. The signing would be a boost for the club following the loss of Craig Bellamy to Manchester City earlier this month.

At the very least, West Ham United director of football Gianluca Nani has confirmed the club's interest in the Brescia striker. "We are working on Savio of Brescia, and we are well advanced," confirmed Nani to Mediaset. Savio's agent Patrick Bastianelli also expects the deal to West Ham to go through soon. "The player is very close to West Ham," he admitted to the Italian press over the weekend. "Savio will go away soon, and the boy is happy to find Zola, a great coach and with him he will only embrace an important technical programme from which he will only grow and improve. West Ham have accelerated the negotiations."

The Hammers have also been linked with Mario Balotelli, the young and wayward Inter striker. However a circumspect Gianluca Nani denied reports that a deal was likely to be struck soon. "We have never talked to anyone about Balotelli," he said, "but if we have Savio in place then that could be us done in January." United are thought to have been monitoring Balotelli closely, and despite Nani's denials are rumoured to have made enquiries into his availability. The club have also intimated that the capture of Nsereko may not necessarily be the last bit of business done during this transfer window. For the moment, at least, the brother and agent of Mario Balotelli is saying there's been no contact with West Ham for the Milanese striker. Corrado Balotelli said: "He was calm after meeting with the club and I think he is prepared to accept any decision from (coach) Jose Mourinho."

In another strange twist, Sky Sports sources 'understand' Juventus have made an approach to sign West Ham United striker Carlton Cole. They report that the former England Under 21 international has been in sparkling form for the Hammers of late after scoring five goals in six games, and is now wanted in Italy, with Juventus understood to have made an approach for the 25-year-old. Juve coach Claudio Ranieri gave Cole his professional debut at Chelsea in 2002 and still appears to be a fan of the powerful front man. The striker was recently linked with a move to Tottenham after Spurs boss Harry Redknapp missed out on a deal for former Hammers team-mate Craig Bellamy. Cole also undertook loan spells at Wolves, Charlton and Aston Villa before leaving Chelsea on a permanent basis for West Ham in the summer of 2006. During his time at Upton Park, Cole has scored 18 goals in 80 appearances and is a key part of Gianfranco Zola's plans.

Thankfully (before my head explodes from the insanity), reports have subsequently emerged that have cast doubts on the veracity of the rumour. Juventus sporting director Alessio Secco told PA Sport today: "We are not interested in Carlton Cole. We are very happy with the players we have in the team and we will not make any moves in the January transfer market." Juventus, who are second in Serie A following a run of six wins in their last seven games, have recently seen veteran striker David Trezeguet return from a lengthy injury lay-off.

Finally, Martin Samuel has taken another judicious swipe at the vagaries of third party interference in football, especially as it pertains to Sheffield United. West Ham are not mentioned directly in what is an excellent piece, but the implication is readily discernible.

Some brief extracts...

The Football Association will this morning begin an investigation into the circumstances around the transfer of Matthew Spring from Luton Town to Charlton Athletic, on the basis of possible third party interference from Sheffield United.

Don't hold your breath.

It has long been Sheffield United's lot to be painted as victims of grave injustice, so do not expect this latest twist to make a ripple in that smug little pond, or to appear anywhere beyond these pages. Even so, this is important; or it would be if football cared for anything more than grand gestures to the gallery.

Followed by:

The Football League, despite Lord Mawhinney's (right) regular land-grabs for the high moral ground, do not have rules governing third party interference, and a spokesman yesterday presented this issue as a hospital pass to the Football Association, who have been so anxious for involvement in third party rulings in the past.

Now they have the chance. Rule C1 (b), clause 3 states: 'No club shall enter into a contract which enables any other party to that contract to acquire the ability materially to influence the club's policies or performance of its teams in matches and/or competition.'

In English? For Spring to join Charlton, his registration would have to be held at that moment by Luton, not Sheffield United. And once this document was restored to Luton, Sheffield United became a third party and any involvement in his career should cease.

For Sheffield to then influence whether a permanent Charlton signing plays against them is therefore third party interference; just as it was when Sheffield and Watford publicly announced the gentlemen's agreement that kept Steve Kabba out of the Watford line-up against his former club in 2007, the year Sheffield went down.

In conclusion:

Chances are that Sheffield United will get away with it again. Despite all that has happened these last two seasons, the rules seem either vague, easily circumvented or non-existent.

Many pontificate, but few seem moved to act. We have, however, cornered the market in hypocrisy.

For clearly, it is unthinkable that a man as publicly committed to fair play as Kevin McCabe, chairman of Sheffield United, would not have checked the regulations first and ensured that everything about Spring's transfer was above board and not at all wonky or open to abuse.

And what a good thing that is, really, for otherwise a fellow could get quite confused by football's new morality.

Football is a funny old game. Not really.

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