Saturday, 28 February 2009

Acquaintances Renewed

Matthew Upson says he is relishing the prospect of facing Craig Bellamy when the hot-blooded striker returns to Upton Park for the first time since his move to Manchester City. Upson will have the job of quelling the Welshman who has scored four goals in seven games following a £14 million transfer and is confident he will not succumb to the pantomime villain's wind-up routines. Speaking in this morning's Telegraph, he stated: "I am sure Bellers will get a bit of stick from our fans and maybe he will be in my ear too but I don't take part in all that," the England centre-half said.

"He is very funny. He's gone to Manchester City and for all his faults, he has a desire to do well and to win. That stands out. He brings a lot to any team and has already made a big impact there, in the changing room which looks to be quite volatile at the moment. But it's what he's doing on the pitch that is most important. He doesn't care what people say or think. That's him. He's old enough now to know what is going to be said about his behaviour. The dressing room at West Ham is still good. Yes, he is a different type of character but we have adapted well. I'll probably be marking Craig and it will be good to see him. He's a good player, makes clever runs but we play against decent players every week in the Premier League."

Predictably, Bellamy is not helping the situation. He stated he would have 'bottled it' had he stayed at West Ham when Manchester City came calling and is relishing the prospect of a hostile reception when he returns tomorrow. "To me, it’s about not settling for second best," he said. "That’s why I came. I could be sitting at home now, still a West Ham player. Expectations on me and the club were completely different there. No disrespect but I don’t regret what I did. I’m happy, my kids are happy and so is my wife. This is a new test for me."

Upson and his colleagues will be aiming to put their FA Cup exit at Middlesbrough behind them as they aim to arrest a run of five games without a win. "We need to regroup and address what went wrong," Upson said. "We never got going at Middlesbrough and it was a real disappointment. We wanted to put on a good performance and it was a wasted opportunity to do something in the FA Cup. We may have been a bit jaded from last weekend at Bolton perhaps but this is the hard part of the season and we have to deal with it. There has been no room for squad rotation in the last few months but now we have to dig in and improve. We need to raise the standards of everyone around us. We didn't have the sharpness at Middlesbrough, we have been punished two games in a row now, both times by free-kicks. What made it worse was we had such an awesome away following. It felt twice as bad to lose, we had let the fans down."

After a decent run of results around the turn of the year, the Irons have now gone five games without a win. However, victory on Sunday could lift Gianfranco Zola's men back up into the top eight, and possible contention for a UEFA Cup place. "We are really dying for it [a win] again, and that is the kind of feeling we must have," said Zola. "The guys are not willing to sit on this too long and we are determined to put another run of good results together. We know what we are capable of achieving and will work very hard to make this happen."

To that end, insists Zola, he wants his side to focus on the game against City on Sunday, rather than worry about the return of Craig Bellamy to Upton Park. "I hope he [Bellamy] can have a good reception, but that is not down to me," said the West Ham manager. "However, it is not my concern. It is important we focus, I focus, on winning the game. He is a big player and he is one of the City players we will have to look after. But I have already spoken a lot about him leaving and now that is it on that subject."

Mark Hughes persuaded Gianfranco Zola to eventually sell Bellamy but insists the Welshman has nothing to prove. "People tried to make a nuisance of themselves, saying he was going on strike, which wasn’t the case," stated Sparky. "I hope his record against former clubs continues this weekend. He’s in fantastic form at the moment and so it’s a good time to play West Ham. If we can get him in the right positions and provide him with the right service, hopefully he can get us the goals. I think he’s a player who could play at any club in the Premier League and have an impact. He’s been a great signing for us. People say we paid £14million for him but actually it was nothing like that. It was more like £10million."

So Sunday will give Zola the chance to renew acquaintances with City boss Hughes. The Sardinian played alongside the Welshman when Chelsea won the FA Cup at Wembley in 1997. "It will be a pleasure to see him and to shake hands with him again," said Zola. "We were partners - and had a very good partnership together. When we were playing together, he always had the attitude and the qualities to be a manager."

While Hughes has a wealth of riches at his disposal now following City's takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group, Zola maintains he is fully focused on getting the best he can from what he has available rather than worry about who might have more funds at other clubs. "I am really enjoying my experience here because I have got fantastic players," he said. "They are making it very, very enjoyable for me, so I do not envy anybody."

West Ham will be without midfielder Mark Noble for Sunday's game, as he serves a one-match suspension. Jack Collison looks set to return into the starting XI having been on the bench on Wednesday, but defender James Collins is still out with a hamstring problem. Luis Boa Morte (groin), Danny Gabbidon (stomach/back) and striker Dean Ashton (ankle) remain sidelined. Kieron Dyer is back in light training and will hopefully give West Ham a boost by returning to action next month. The injury-jinxed midfielder has played just five times since a £6million move from Newcastle 18 months ago. After returning from a broken leg, Dyer, 30, injured a calf but fears he needed an op proved groundless.

Team from: Green, Neill, Tomkins, Upson, Ilunga, Behrami, Parker, Collison, Kovac, Cole, Di Michele, Lastuvka, Lopez, Savio, Spector, Tristan, Sears.

I Envy Spurs' Day Out At The Wee-Wee Cup

Spurs fans shouldn't bother watching their team dismantled by United's kids. If that sounds bitter, yes, it is because I'm jealous
By Russell Brand

It's the Carling Cup final, a competition as weak as the lager it promotes. A tournament so insignificant that Tottenham are able to muster up enough consecutive victories to reach its climax. My mate Mick supports the "Mighty Spurs" and will be going with his son Yiodis (they're Greek and Mick's full name actually has enough syllables to fill this page) to see Spurs take on Manchester United. Will it become a cherished memory of a Wembley upset? Or a day where they share in defeat and console each other that it was "a lovely day out".

I reject the "lovely day out" philosophy; failure pains me. I don't enjoy watching West Ham lose, I'd rather not go. On days where I've debated attendance then declined I feel strangely comforted when I learn that we lost. "Good," I think, "I saved myself the aggravation."

Witness, for example, the fans who travelled to the Riverside this week to see West Ham capitulate before Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fifth round, I would've resented that if I'd been there.

If I'd been stood in that cold midweek monument to the decline of England's premier domestic Cup, watching the one remaining narrative thread of our season being jizzed out like grey sperm into the drab hankie of the fifth round I wouldn't turn to my companion and say "well, that was a lovely day out". I'd probably weep, or worse, begin the introspective dig through the flaccid tendrils of wasted hope which must be discarded to cope with yet another loss.

Dismantling dreams in the face of the corporeal is an exercise in bereavement. The realities we envisage but do not live leave tearful traces in our memory of what never was. Frankly I regret watching it on the telly, it was obvious we would lose.

Boro typically do well in cup competitions and in spite of a Hammers victory against them in the 2006 semi-final I intuitively knew that we'd be knocked out on Wednesday. Well not intuitively, rationally because I'd already made tentative plans to watch the quarter-final tie against Everton should West Ham triumph.

I've got a couple of friends who follow the Toffees and I allowed myself to indulge in the reckless fantasy of speculating beyond the game in hand.

Any manager will tell you that's foolish. "We're taking it one game at a time," they say - and they don't mean the next game but one, they mean the game directly in front of them.

You'll never hear a manager's adrenalised pontifications on what the future holds, well not now Kevin Keegan's resigned. By contemplating a trip to Goodison Park I was not only counting my chickens before my eggs had hatched, I was naming the chickens and signing them up for university.

Well now those eggs will never hatch, they're barren, brittle ova of nothing. In fact, worse than that, they're them eggs where there's a spot of blood in the yoke. Yuk! A tiny scarlet speck of unfulfilled potential.

How can Spurs fans be excited about winning the warm wee-wee trophy? They won it last year and look at subsequent events: boomerang transfers, sackings and disillusionment. They should refuse to attend or just send mascots, that's what United will do; field a team of children and cuddly twerps in foam suits and they'll still stuff the cockerels of north London. Mick and Yiodis are countenancing a day where their side is laid waste by toddlers and cartoon red devils and paying good money for the privilege.

I suppose all this sounds rather splenetic. Well yes, that's because I do feel a bit jealous and the more I decry it the more a shot at a trophy, any trophy, sounds inspiring. Perhaps we should invent something that West Ham can win: "most rapidly balding manger" for Gianfranco Zola, who is vehemently adhering to the cliche of the stress-ridden gaffer by ageing a generation in three months like some half-arsed, lottery-funded parody of Benjamin Button.

Yes, a trophy of that nature may seem hollow and, to a point, in bad taste, but at least it would be a victory, something to cling to, a marker of the passing days and our inevitable, unremarkable trudge towards the grave. Not to mention "a lovely day out".

Guardian column

Friday, 27 February 2009

The Bill Is In

Sheffield United will be claiming £45.5million over the Carlos Tevez affair when they face West Ham United at an arbitration hearing next month. According to several newspaper reports this morning, the Blades have finally submitted the 'official bill' for the cost of their relegation from the Premier League two seasons ago and will now face the Hammers at a hearing due to begin on March 16 to decide how much compensation they should receive.

The Hammers have already been fined £5.5million for breaching League rules over third-party agreements and now the Yorkshire club, who were originally claiming £30million, have produced a detailed breakdown of figures showing what they claim to have lost, taking into account forfeited TV revenue, falling gate receipts, depreciation in player values and a decline in sponsorship.

The Sun reports that Argentine striker Tevez, now a Manchester United player, scored the winner at Old Trafford on the final day of the season to keep the Hammers up and send the Blades down. A subsequent tribunal, chaired by Lord Griffiths, then ruled Tevez would not have been allowed to play if West Ham had been honest about the status of his third-party registration. Of course, we should not let the fact that West Ham United only needed a solitary point to survive in the final game and would've achieved that regardless of Tevez's strike cloud a good story here; nor the fact that Sheffield United would've survived regardless had they managed to beat Wigan Athletic at home.

It is now up to Lord Griffiths to decide the final payout to the Blades and he will take into account evidence from expert witnesses. The article states that the signs are not good for West Ham as Lord Griffiths has previously been critical of their behaviour, particularly that of chief executive Scott Duxbury. He insisted: "We have no doubt Tevez’s services were worth at least three points to West Ham over the season and were what made the difference between them staying in the Premier League and being relegated."

The Hammers have already failed in attempts to get the case referred to the High Court and the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. On each occasion they were told to abide by the tribunal decision. In the meantime, a new probe has been launched by the FA and Premier League as a direct result of Lord Griffiths’ findings.

In related news, the man in the middle of this wretched drama says the demands of winning trophies with Manchester United is far easier to cope with than the gut-wrenching pressure of fighting relegation with West Ham. Carlos Tevez played a controversial part in keeping the Hammers in the Premier League before his protracted switch to Old Trafford and he is quoted in the Express as saying: "The pressure I felt at West Ham when we had to keep them in the Premier League was intense. When you are at the centre of a team that is fighting to stay up that is much harder pressure to deal with. The pressure builds up match by match, especially when so many people love the club and want to see it survive. It is not pleasant. It is much easier when you are fighting for trophies. It is a nice kind of pressure and the sort of thing I have been dealing with since my time at Boca Juniors. Win, win, win – that’s all you have to do!"

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Middlesbrough 2 West Ham United 0

Middlesbrough Enjoy Night Of Light Relief by George Caulkin
Just when their despairing supporters must have expected it least, belief returned to Teesside. After a victory over West Ham United that was remarkable for its dominance, Middlesbrough will play Everton in the FA Cup quarter-finals. It was some performance... Times
Stewart Downing Fires Middlesbrough Into FA Cup Last Eight by Rob Stewart
So much for the romance of the FA Cup. Gianfranco Zola last night admitted his love affair with the competition had suffered a major jolt. The West Ham manager twice won the competition with Chelsea in 1997 and 2000 but his dreams of emulating those feats by guiding his club to Wembley this season are over for now... Telegraph
Downing Delight As Boro March On by Colin Young
Why can't life in the Barclays Premier League be this easy for Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate and his underachieving stars? Anyone watching last night's fifth-round replay at the Riverside on television could be forgiven for thinking that Middlesbrough are a team without a care in the world as they now contemplate their fourth successive FA Cup quarter-final... Mail
Fortune Smiles On Tuncay As Boro End Goal Drought by Michael Walker
Buses from London transported 4,000 West Ham United fans to Teesside last night, but it was Middlesbrough goals that came along in London bus fashion. Boom boom. Boro fans have not seen a goal here since 10 January but two appeared from nowhere in the first twenty minutes and the goals, from Stewart Downing and Tuncay Sanli, meant that Boro made it to their fourth consecutive FA Cup quarter-final. They go to Everton on Sunday week... Independent
Downing Gives Boro Fans Something To Cheer About by Jason Mellor
Middlesbrough belied their wretched league form to secure a fourth consecutive appearance in the last eight of the FA Cup with some ease, much to the relief of the club's public relations department. This week's demand for their most vociferous supporters to act with a little more decorum and make themselves audible only when their previously far from prolific heroes scored a goal has already secured PR gaffe of the season... Guardian

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Philosophical In Defeat

Carlton Cole has been speaking about the fine line between victory and defeat on the official site today, and pays tribute to the performance of the team as a whole in last weekend's reverse at Bolton Wanderers. The England forward is in the squad that heads off for Middlesbrough today and is determined to get a positive result in tomorrow's FA Cup fifth-round replay on Teesside. Cole was a surprise inclusion at the Reebok Stadium after struggling with a knock all week, but he led the line with strength and skill and came close to scoring on several occasions; including two headers cleared off the line by Matthew Taylor and goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen.

The frontman admitted he and his team-mates were gutted to come away with nothing from a game that they dominated for long periods. "You could tell that the boys had come off the field really disappointed. As was said in the dressing room, it was the finer details in the first half that cost us," he said. "We started really fast [erm, we were two goals down within the first 15 minutes, Carlton], pressurised well [apart from those two goals in the first 15 minutes], but the fine details between the lines were the difference [details like TWO PESKY GOALS IN THE FIRST FIFTEEN MINUTES]. When you are involved in a game like that, you know what they are all about and they just got a few decisions their way as well which didn't help.

"I'm not really bothered about my performance. I'd rather be talking about the team as a whole. I felt we knocked it around well and got about them but sometimes you just don't get the luck or the rub of the green. I had a chance cleared off the line, David Di Michele had two good opportunities and Nobes had an opportunity to shoot. These are the details that we need to brush up on because they win games. Even when we went 2-0 down everyone involved knew we could still get a good result. We still felt we weren't out of the game, which you sometimes feel against other Premier League sides at 2-0. Scotty got his goal and we felt it was our chance to progress and get an extra goal or two but it just didn't happen for us the way it should have."

So two single-goal defeats ten months and one manager apart, and the devil in the detail, as revealed by the majesty of the Guardian Chalk Board, illustrates the transformation in United's footballing philosophy as preached by Messrs Zola and Clarke. Defeat is still defeat, of course, but there are ways and means of accepting your demise that ameliorates the pain for the travelling faithful. Almost 70 more attempted passes and nine additional attempts on goal compared to the previous visit to the Reebok under Alan Curbishley, underscores some of Cole's sentiment and speaks volumes to the positivity sweeping through the ranks.

Now on to the FA Cup where an equaliser seven minutes from time at Upton Park 10 days ago gave West Ham United a second bite of the cherry and a fifth round replay against Middlesbrough for the right to battle Everton in the quarter-finals. Amid suggestions that the romance of the cup must be subjugated to the pragmatism of the Premier League, both Gianfranco Zola and Gareth Southgate have been at pains to insist that, after an Herita Ilunga-rescued 1-1 draw, this is not one game too many.

Zola insists those who devalue the FA Cup make 'no sense' - and he is determined to capture the trophy as a manager. Having won it twice as a player with Chelsea, including one Wembley victory over Middlesbrough, the Italian puts a huge importance on the trophy. "It means a lot, an awful lot," he said. "It is a fantastic competition and some say it is losing something but that makes no sense. We have to make sure everyone values it very much. It's unique. If I can win this as a manager then that would be great. I always say it was one of my best achievements to win it as a player."

Middlesbrough have gone 14 games without a victory in the league and are intent on climbing from the lowly station of second from bottom. They will be without Didier Digard, possibly for the remainder of the season, while Marlon King is cup-tied having already played in this competition for Hull. The good news for Southgate is harder to ascertain, although Andrew Taylor is fit to return following an ankle injury. The Hammers need less recourse to positive news from the treatment room. James Collins is ruled out for the next month due to a hamstring injury but James Tomkins is on standby to deputise and Lucas Neill returns from suspension and could replace Jonathan Spector.

Finally, the Mirror reports West Ham almost sold rising star Jack Collison to League One Peterborough for just £300,000. The article insists the clubs agreed a fee back in August when Alan Curbishley was still Hammers manager but Posh boss Darren Ferguson was frustrated when the Upton Park board changed their minds. Gianfranco Zola is quoted as saying: "Jack has been a real surprise for me - not just because of his qualities but also his personality. He will be a very important player in this country and for West Ham for a long time."

An American In London (part two)

Mention of the National Team leads on to talk of a certain tournament in South Africa next summer where Spector could well be playing for the US, a long way from getting up at 5am in June 2002 to watch the games on TV with his friends in Arlington Heights. "Bob Bradley will pick the team he thinks will best represent the United States at the World Cup and I think I could contribute," he answers politically. "It is not my decision, but yes, it is a goal of mine. My versatility could help me out in that I can play anywhere along the back four, but there is still a long time to go. Anything could happen between now and the World Cup."

And as if to prove his determination is unbreakable, he adds: "If I do make the World Cup, it will be fantastic and a great accomplishment for me, but if I don't then it will be that much bigger an incentive for me to make the next one. It was certainly a disappointment to miss out on the last World Cup but with a little luck and some hard work, I hope to be a member of the team that represents the US in 2010. There is a talented pool of players, and that competition for places will make for a strong side that gets sent to South Africa. If I don't make it, then I will still be supporting them as I feel a part of that set-up - and deep down, I am an American."

National team call-ups or not, West Ham United does appear to fit Spector like a glove. "The team spirit has been fantastic and all the players have been very supportive even though each player wants to play," he noted. "Everyone goes about their way in a professional manner and I think that is the main thing here." If that is one reason he can go far, another is his conscientiousness. "I think there is always something to improve on physically, mentally or technically as a player," Spector asserted. "If I stop doing anything particular, then I will lose certain aspects of my game."

After playing sparingly for the Red Devils in 2004-5, Spector spent the following season on loan at Charlton Athletic. "I had got some games with United my first season, but then it kind of came to a point for me that I decided I didn’t want to sit around," Spector said. "They spent a lot of money on a lot of guys who play my position. I wanted to go on loan, but after last season I had every intention of going back to Man United. They even offered me a new contract. But I felt it was time to move on. It wasn’t that I felt unwanted. I just couldn’t go back to sitting on the bench. Sir Alex understood that I wanted to play; he has always been up front with me and said that I still had a future at the club.

West Ham kind of came from nowhere. It was a disappointing end to that season for me. I dislocated my shoulder in the second to last game, against Portsmouth. I couldn't have played in the last game anyway because it was against Man United [as part of the loan agreements Spector was precluded from facing Manchester United]. I missed an opportunity to play in the World Cup for the United States and that was disappointing to me. Other teams found out I wasn't going to be going back to Manchester and that's when I met with Alan Pardew in New York when he was traveling after the season. Once I met him I felt the club would be a good fit for me."

In many ways, Jonathan Spector seems tailor-made for West Ham. Like his club, the Illinois-born defender is brimming with talent, but for some reason has not quite yet stamped his presence on the Premier League. Since he first made the move to Upton Park the US international has been an intermittent fixture in claret and blue, playing 28 games for the Hammers last season in a year truncated by injury. He endured a frustrating second half to 2008, suffering a hip flexor injury that ruled him out of the Olympic Games in Beijing and the opening half of the new Premier League season. Now, the 23-year-old is finally back to fitness and enjoyed his first start in claret and blue (at Bolton) since appearing in a 1-0 defeat against the same team in April last year.

Spector has played most positions on the field, and this could be a potential ace up his sleeve when it comes time for impressing his new manager. "I think my versatility is an asset," he agrees. "I can play anywhere along the back four, and my left foot is as good as my right as I have worked on that a lot in training. Hopefully I will find a position and be able to stick with it whether it is center back, left back or right back, but I am just happy to be on the field, to be honest, and getting the experience."

Left back seems to be the position he is edging towards in his mind, which brings up some interesting competitive scenarios with both West Ham United and the US. "Even though I have only had a short career, I have played left back for the National Team, and for Man United, Charlton and West Ham," pitches Spector. "I am fairly quick and good in the air, so those are obviously good for a center back. But at the same time I like getting forward as an outside back, so that could be why I am torn between the two positions right now. I feel that my versatility has enabled me to play in a number of different roles. As most people know, I can play anywhere along the back four, but I've played a number of games in the center of midfield, which I have enjoyed and where I felt comfortable straight away."

While his dreams remain on two fronts - holding down a starting spot with his club, while establishing himself as a first choice for his country in the race for 2010 tickets - he has at least achieved one literal goal in a Hammers shirt. Spector chalked up the first strike of his professional career at Pride Park in early November 2007, notching the third for the East Londoners in a 5-0 mauling of luckless Derby County. When the Rams failed to clear a corner in the 55th minute, Spector pulled the trigger from around 20 yards, his shot ricocheting off fellow American Eddie Lewis before crossing the line. Lewis was credited with an own goal, officially denying Spector the glory, but the man from Arlington Heights has already seen enough setbacks to know when not to give in. "I'm certainly claiming that goal against Derby," he grinned, "Although, some may think that I'm biased! I think it’s a conspiracy against Americans to upset both of us! I did an interview with Match of the Day afterwards. They said ‘one American scored today – which one was it?’

Now he is back playing again, US soccer fans can resume skimming their eyes over the Hammers starting eleven on a Saturday, hoping Spector will be listed among them. "I'll never be satisfied with playing time until I'm starting every game," Spector declares. "Each opportunity I get, no matter where I am playing, I try and make an impact and contribution to the team. I feel that I am continuing to learn and improve each season, which is important for any player, particularly at my age."

Indeed, and at still just 23 years old, time remains on his side. In the days of squad rotation and a fluid international market, no player is guaranteed a shoe-in. Now at his third club in England, however, the former Charlton and Manchester United defender is eager to cement a starting spot at West Ham United, even if he is still hop-on, hop-off for now. So eager, in fact, a few months ago the American signed a contract extension with the club until the year 2011, with Gianfranco Zola apparently seeing a lot of positives about what Spector has to offer, even from the treatment table. "I appreciate their confidence in knowing I was going to be making a full recovery and knowing I was doing everything I could possibly do in the U.S. for my rehab to make it back," Spector said. "I’ve certainly enjoyed playing for West Ham and it’s somewhere I want to be. I feel I have some things I want to accomplish at West Ham, and I was happy that the club gave me the opportunity to do that.

"I think when things are going well at a football club, it is generally going to be a more enjoyable atmosphere and experience than when things aren't going well, just as it would be at any place of work," offered Spector. "It's hard to say why we didn't perform particularly well last season. You can point to injuries and things of that nature, but we've had a number of injuries this year as well, yet we have been able to cope. With Gianfranco and Steve arriving, the dynamic of the club has changed and there is a great team spirit at the moment."

Whatever happens on the pitch, the next few years will also see Spector continue to develop as an impressive young man away from the glare of the Sky cameras. When conversation turns to his life outside football; the answers might disappoint the tabloids, but will impress his manager. "I take college courses from Indiana University," he reveals. In history and philosophy if you are curious. "They keep me busy. I like reading magazines and books, all sorts of stuff. Now I am on my own I do all the cooking, cleaning and domestic duties that most people my age don't have to do. I am starting to enjoy cooking and my mom sends me new recipes. Even though it is a shorter working day than most people have, it is an exhausting day so every once in a while I have to take an afternoon nap."

You can hear the tabloids buzzing already.

"Musically, I listen to a little bit of everything," continues Spector. "I like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and I used to play the trumpet, so I like jazz. I also like fat bass and punk. They mainly play hip-hop in the West Ham dressing room, which I can listen to although it is not my favorite. I am not sure who it belongs to, but it is the same CD and I am starting to get sick of it!" He also dabbles in piano and has a soft spot for “non-mainstream” rock. Notably, his favourite bands, like Good Charlotte and Lucky Boys Confusion, are steadfastly American.

So given his relocation to England, what cultural aspects, if any, of UK life might be rubbing off on him. "Well, cricket I just don't get!" he kicks off. "But I am beginning to appreciate English food, I hate to say. When I first came over, I stayed away from the entire Shepherds Pie, and fish and chips. We had a dietician at Bradenton, so I know all about that unhealthy eating!"

What about the accents? Will Jonathan emulate Brad Friedel, who sounds as much Lancashire as Ohio these days, and develop a Cockney twang? "Some people do tell me when I go back to the US, my American accent is starting to disappear," he sighs. "And I say a few things in an English way and use certain British phrases, but they said after I had spent time in Bradenton that I had picked up a bit of a Southern accent. Hopefully, I will keep my own identity," he says with mirth on his mind.

Visiting family and friends apart, the only Americans Spector sees are the other Yanks Abroad, with fellow Arlington Heights boy Brian McBride a particular source of help. "They are all really friendly guys and I go to them if I have any questions as they have been through it all over here, especially Brian who comes from the same town as me," he says. "I have talked to him a few times and he has been extremely helpful. He is a great person and player and always has some good advice to pass on."

While his work ethic is beyond question and Spector has enjoyed a fair slice of luck ("I feel very fortunate in my short career to do what I love, especially playing professionally in England, which is the place to do it"), you leave thinking what success he may achieve in the future will be as much down to the soccer gods smiling on him as anything else. His famous halftime conversion to playing defence in the presence of a Manchester United scout there to watch his opponent was one such stroke of serendipity. "That happens quite a bit," says Spector. "Maybe if he had not seen me there, someone else might have seen me eventually, but I was just happy he had in that game."

Even if we were to hear no more of Jonathan Spector, he has at least already made his mark on the Premiership with what that infamous 'dodgy barnet'. More Phil Spector than Premier League footballer, the hairstyle he sported during those years in England has been described as 'screaming out country singer.' "I don't listen to much country," he laughs. "And it was not a true mullet anyway! But it was my own personal style. I am not one to go along with the pop culture and what everyone else thinks is right. I am my own person and I am sticking with it!"

An American In London (part one)

The setting amidst the wide avenues and skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in London's Docklands is atypically English. In fact, it looks and feels American, an appropriate setting therefore to meet the player who calls the Windy City home. What first strikes you about Jonathan Spector is how young he looks. Despite his experiences in the tough arenas of the Premier League and international soccer, he still wears the boyish manner and unblemished face of a teenager. But as soon as he starts talking, Spector at once displays a professionalism that recognizes no boundaries. "London is a great city and has a lot more going on than Manchester," he states. "But it is more about where I am playing, not where I am living right now. I would be happy living wherever I am playing football."

Footballers of all ages feel homesickness, and Spector would not be the first high-profile American in Europe to feel it, but a 4,000 mile relocation seems to have had little effect. "Being here is doing what I want to do, so when I am over here I do not know I miss America too much," revealed the defender. "I miss my family and friends, but I am gaining more being here than losing anything. I was in Chicago last summer and I'm not sure when I'll be back. I think it is a great city, but what I enjoy most is being with my family and friends, not the actual city."

Spector's love of football took root at his family home in Arlington Heights, Illinois, only a few doors away from another man whose path in the game Jonathan would come to follow. "I come from Arlington Heights, where the racetrack is. The Fire almost moved there, but I am glad they did not as I like going to watch the horse races when I am back there. Soccer is a big thing in that area. Brian McBride is from Arlington Heights and actually lives about five minutes from me. I would have gone to Buffalo Grove High School where he went had I not gone to St. Viator, a private Catholic school. We grew up in the same area, but played for different clubs."

Sport was a consuming passion for the young Jonathan and his elder brother, especially as their grandfather played professional basketball, but soon enough the football came to dominate. "I did track, cross-country, basketball, volleyball, a bit of tennis and I tried to play golf, but I think I always had a soccer ball," he recalled. "I played basketball with one of my teddy bears and one of my mom's chandeliers and I played soccer in the house all the time. She did not like it although I can't remember actually breaking anything. Then I played in a kind of league when I was four years old.

"Both my parents liked football," Spector continued. "My dad is of Irish/English origin and grew up in Philadelphia, which was a melting-pot like Chicago so he was open to a number of international influences. There were a lot of Italians and Germans there, so obviously football was big." And the German connection turned out to be the key one, cementing his love for football and later freeing him to bypass the paperwork to play in England.

"I could get a German passport because my mother was born in Siegen, Westphalia, so that helped further my career as a professional footballer in Europe. I have my mom to thank for that. I was extremely fortunate. My first football club was Schwaben A.C. in Chicago and it was unique because all the coaches and the families involved were from a strong German background and they all spoke German to each other. It was my first international footballing experience!"

With Germany based in Chicago during World Cup USA '94, Spector's Teutonic heritage paid dividends again as he got to meet his football hero. "One of the coaches on the team knew Jurgen Klinsmann's father when they were in Germany together and he was able to arrange for me to meet him at the team hotel before one of their games. I had always grown up a supporter of the German National Team, and in particular Klinsmann, so it was a big experience to meet him. He was the player I looked up to the most because I played striker like him when I was younger. Because of my strong German background I have always supported the German National Team and German football in general."

After Schwaben, Spector graduated to Chicago's Sockers F.C., a renowned source of youth development and a "turning point" for the young German-American. "I was there as an Under-13, and then for two or three seasons before I joined the National Team. Everything really took off for me there." In 1999-2000, the Premier Cup, the biggest under-15 tournament in the world, was Spector’s first exposure to international competition and helped change him from a Chicago high-school kid, with no designs on becoming a professional footballer, to the determined young talent he was to blossom into. He played at the finals held in Amsterdam when the Premier Cup was run by Nike. Set up in the early nineties by the US sportswear giant to help demonstrate its commitment to youth, alumni include Jose Antonio Reyes, who played in the Premier Cup for Sevilla in 1996-7 and 1997-8, Fernando Torres, Andy van der Meyde, Mikael Forssell and Carlos Tevez.

"It was the first time I’d been exposed to soccer of a really high standard," he said. "Kids playing soccer in the US don’t get the chance to play too many international competitions. We won the Nike National Tournament, the National Kellogg's Title, and I played in my first international tournament. It was an eye-opener to see how competitive and talented the other players were and I think that was the moment I decided this is what I want to do. I wanted to be a top player at the top level."

Professional football now his chosen career path, the next step was to decide between high school and a college career or a place at US Soccer's residency programme in Bradenton FL. He chose the latter and graduated in their class of 2003 alongside Freddy Adu and Eddie Gaven. "I did consider going to college as I had a number of great schools that were interested in me like Duke and Princeton," he recalls. "It was difficult to say no to Princeton, but I have no regrets. Instead I got to play with the top players in the country at the time and I improved a great deal. The experiences I have had are amazing compared to most people my age. I would have liked to have the college experience though. I was pretty close to going. I visited a bunch of schools: Boston College, Notre Dame and UVa. I was at Princeton right when A Beautiful Mind came out, so it was cool to see the campus. But I wouldn’t trade what I have done.

"I worked with sports psychologists, did weight training, speed training and the national team coaches helped me out a lot. John Ellinger, John Hackworth, Peter Miller and all of those guys did a great job and I cannot thank them enough for the knowledge that they passed on. It was also a great life experience for me moving away from home, aged fifteen," says Spector. "A lot of people ask me if I miss not having my high school experience, but I would not change a thing - no regrets. I had a great time down there and played with some great players. The experience I have had with the national team in general has been fantastic. There are not many kids who can travel the world and see so many different countries. I had a plan, but that all kind of got turned upside down," he explains. "When I first went to Bradenton, I figured I would be there until my junior year, play in the Under-17 World Championship, go back to St. Viator High School in my senior year, go to college for four years and then play professionally."

Given his experience of Manchester United's famous youth set-up and latterly the even more revered West Ham United Academy, it begs the question of how Bradenton compares, yet his recollection is very positive. "Nowhere else in the country is there a programme where the top players are able to train together," noted Spector. "In England, the clubs have great youth programmes, but in America we don't have that. And because we are such a big country, scouting is so difficult with so many players to watch, so Bradenton might be the best solution for now. US Soccer has done a great job building it up and they have put a lot of money into it so hopefully it will pay off."

While Spector's route to the top seems an obvious one to follow, he is surprisingly not quick to agree: "Claudio Reyna opted to go to college first, but he was still successful. Brian McBride went to college first and look at him – he has had a great career. Tim (Howard) did not go to college either and went to MLS and now he is playing for Everton. Top players find their way to the top. And some would do better in the MLS – Landon Donovan, for example. He had trouble when he went to Germany, but he is obviously a great player, has been successful at World Cups and is still a great player in MLS. I just felt it was better for me personally to come to Europe."

Spector is primarily a defender for West Ham and the US now, but it was not always so - playing for the US Under-17's at the Ballymena international tournament in 2002, he made perhaps the quickest conversion from a striker to defender in soccer history in all of ten minutes. "That is right!," he laughs. "I was a striker, and at half time, (John) Ellinger pulled me aside and said 'You're gonna play center half, and Hackworth is gonna tell you everything you need to know'. Hackworth did a great job. He set up the cones and said positionally 'you have to do this and that', 'when this is here, you have to be there' and so on... he only had ten minutes as I had to warm up as well. Actually it was in the next game against Austria that the United scout who was there to watch the forward I was marking, noticed me instead. So it was kind of lucky how it worked out. We had a shutout and I don’t think they had any shots on goal. That was the first time I had ever played defence. It was big ask, but I guess it worked out."

Not long after came the approach from Manchester United, in September 2003. "As soon as they offered me a contract, I could not say no to them - although, I thought I might have to persuade my parents!" he chuckles. "It was on my last day of being on trial that they offered me a deal." Arriving at Old Trafford it seemed a dream had come true, but a FIFA rule on overseas players aged under 18 meant Spector found himself on the sidelines unable to kick a ball in anger. "I actually came over quickly because Steve (Kelly, his agent) told me FIFA were about to implement that rule so for the first couple of months I was just training without playing. It was extremely frustrating, but I was not going to complain as I figured 'How many 17-year old Americans are playing in Europe for Manchester United?' I thought 'make the most of the opportunity while you are here and keep working hard'. So I stuck with it and eventually they gave me clearance and the first day I was allowed to play, I was in the starting line-up."

Spector's debut for the Red Devils came in Manchester United’s opening 2004 US tour game against Bayern Munich in Chicago, where he looked like he had been a centre-back since wearing nappies. Even with 58,000 watching and, perhaps more frighteningly, Roy Keane alongside him, he purred through the game, demonstrating poise on the ball, speed on the ground and an eye for the tackle. "He spots danger quickly," enthused Sir Alex Ferguson at the time. It was a rather uneventful 0-0 draw that day at Soldier Field, but Spector recalls it differently. "It was a dream," he said. "It could not have been more perfect to be honest. My favorite clubs growing up were Bayern Munich and Manchester United because they were always on TV a lot. I never thought I would be able to play for and against my two favorite teams in my hometown with all my family and friends there. I had not even thought about until it happened. I never get nervous before games, but I was really excited before playing in that one."

A teenager who does not get nervous on the big stage, even when representing his country at age 18? Perhaps the main reason Spector has got where he is and will go further. "I never really worry about how big of a game it is, no," he explains. "I have never really gotten nervous before big games. I am just quietly confident in that sense. I think you have to be to be successful at this level. I never get too worried or concerned about anything to be honest. Some people feel nervous before games and that may be a good thing for them. But I never get nervous and that is a good thing for me. It is a great thing and I don't know where I got it from, but I guess I am fortunate to have that disposition."

Most people saying these words would come across a touch arrogant, but that is the last impression you would get about Jonathan Spector. He is such a level-headed and pleasant young man to meet that you come away with the firm impression that there is no chance of success going to his head. "I am quietly confident, but try not to feel arrogant about it," he confirms, in case there was any chance of being misunderstood. "You have to feel confidence in your own ability and feel somewhat arrogant on the field, but once you step off I do not see any reason why you should have that attitude."

But defenders by nature 'get stuck in' and Spector is professional enough to know when to leave his nice guy persona in the dressing room. In doing so, he reveals a tigerish determination to succeed. "I have a competitive nature, so I do become a bit of a different person when I step across the white line. I want to win and I will do whatever it takes for my team to win whether it is jumping in front of a shot or whatever."

And to mischievously puncture the clean cut image further, you could bring up his sending off for the Under-17's in 2003's Dallas Cup, when he indulged in some 'afters' on a Newcastle United striker. Spector laughs at the mention of the incident. "What is funny is that when I came to England, I actually came up against the guy in a Man United reserve match! But it was very pleasant and we chatted before the game," assures Spector. "There was nothing negative. It had just been the heat of the game and we had both wanted to win and I was unfortunate in that game but I was happy we beat them in the reserves! I do not agree with going after someone, but you do what you do if you have to win. If you commit a professional foul, as long as you don't want to hurt someone, well sometimes you have to do that."

So Spector may look and sound young and amiable, but he is a fighter on the field and an intelligent one too. Sigi Schmid, respected former coach of the US Under-20 team once observed: "Spector is our only defender who really organizes and talks at the back. Even our team doctor, who has little soccer experience, noticed that." Perhaps learning good behavior through football is a staple of youth coaching manuals in the US, but remains largely absent from their English equivalents? "Absolutely," agrees Spector. "The cultures are slightly different. And in America, one thing I notice is a lot of positive reinforcement from coaches, but in England it is more 'this is what you have to do to win.' They are more hard-nosed here. But I think that mentality makes the English Premier League so competitive and so exciting to watch."

Which is not to say that American culture has not permeated other areas of British football. "In England it’s massive," he smiles. "American culture is so big here. It’s way worse at my club team than it is with the National Team. I don’t spend much money on jewelry but there is certainly a lot of bling floating around West Ham though. I won’t say who, but I did see a diamond grill (shaking his head)." So if not jewelry, what indulgences doesn't he like people to know about? (Which of course, they will now…) "On the bus going to our games, it’s amazing the amount of chocolate bars we eat," he confesses. "Say we are going from London to Birmingham. It takes three hours to get there, mostly because we always leave at rush hour. Explain that! Anyway, when you’re bored you eat, and for some reason there are always chocolate bars around. The average player consumes 2-3 per bus ride. Fortunately I can hold myself to one a trip."

Apart from candy-infused theobromine and tryptophan rushes, could he sum up the formula for football success? Spector replies: "For me personally, the most important thing is hard work. I have had that drilled into me by my parents. Each team needs someone who is just going to work hard. The mental aspect is important too. You have to be mentally strong enough to be successful in your own right and confident in your own ability because there will always be people who say you are not good enough, not big enough, not strong enough or not fast enough. A player must be strong in more ways than one."

Such assuredness implies a young man mature beyond his years, who perhaps has already distilled a formula that could be useful one day in management. For once, he sounds less sure, as if suddenly looking down the mountain he has just climbed. "I do not know if I have focused in on the exact formula that I could pass on yet. I am still learning, but I hopefully have a long and successful career ahead."

Jonathan Spector's grandfather, Art, was an old-time basketball star for Boston Celtics. 'Speed' Spector they called him. He was the first player to sign a professional contract for the Celtics and features heavily in an official history of the franchise. From time to time, Speed’s grandson gets the booklet out and leafs through it for inspiration.

Maybe there is an ingrained professionalism that can take you far? "That is one thing I would attribute to US Soccer," he replies. "When you watch the National Team play, every one of those players works extremely hard whereas certain countries have a few players who feel they do not have to do this or that because they are so talented. The one thing with American teams is that every player is going to work as hard he can. The work ethic is more important in the United States - not just for athletes, but for everyone actually. That is definitely one of the culture differences. Whether it is right or wrong, who is to say? But one thing you are going to get from Americans is a team who are going to work hard no matter what the score is."

Monday, 23 February 2009

From Adversity To Opportunity

An MRI scan has revealed that James Collins will likely be missing for up to four weeks with a hamstring tear in his left leg. The Wales defender was injured early in Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Bolton Wanderers when he went in for a tackle with Johan Elmander. An MRI scan confirmed the injury this afternoon, and it means he could miss the next three league games against Manchester City, Wigan Athletic and West Bromwich Albion before the international fixtures against Finland and Germany in Cardiff on 28 March and 1 April respectively.

Gianfranco Zola has "plenty of options" to replace Collins according to the official site, with James Tomkins reportedly impressing as substitute at the weekend. The England Under-19 centre-back was called upon after just 16 minutes on Saturday and by that stage, Matthew Taylor and Kevin Davies had already given the Trotters a 2-0 lead at the Reebok Stadium. After that it was all about the visitors and Tomkins looked very comfortable. "James Collins has been playing very well. He is a big asset for us but the way James Tomkins came on and played was very encouraging for me," said Zola after the game. "I am sure he will do his job properly."

With Collins now sidelined, the youngster is eyeing a starting place in the fifth-round replay at Middlesbrough and hopes to stake his claim for a regular spot in Gianfranco Zola's side. However, he is mature enough to concede that he will need to work as hard as ever to stand a chance. "Obviously Ginge has been doing very well when he has been playing but maybe there is going to be a chance for me," said Tomkins. "You obviously feel for the lad and hope he's not going to be out for too long because he's been doing really well for us. If I get my chance I've got to take it, but no place is guaranteed at the moment. It was quite a surprise to see James go down but you have to knock out the nerves and take it as it comes. We were 2-0 down so it was fairly hard circumstances but you have to put that behind you and play the game as you do."

Captain Lucas Neill and new recruit Radoslav Kovac could also play at centre-back alongside Matthew Upson if called on, while young defender Bondz N'Gala, 19, has been travelling with the first team of late after an impressive run of performances for the reserves. A further option could be Jonathan Spector, who admitted to having mixed emotions after making his first West Ham United start in ten months on Saturday. Spector played at right-back for the Hammers in place of the suspended Lucas Neill, and responded with an encouraging performance capped with an inch-perfect cross for Scott Parker's 66th-minute goal. However, it was not enough to stop Gianfranco Zola's side from falling to a 2-1 defeat.

The United States international endured a frustrating second half to 2008, suffering a hip flexor injury that ruled him out of the Olympic Games in Beijing and the opening half of the new Premier League season. Now, the 23-year-old is finally back to fitness and enjoyed his first start in claret and blue since appearing in a 1-0 defeat at the same venue in April last year. "On a personal level it was good to be back because it was my first game in a long while but, more importantly, the team was very disappointed with the result," he told the official site. "We went 2-0 down very early on and gave ourselves a mountain to climb and made it really difficult for ourselves. I think it was difficult from then on but we fought back and were on top for the majority of the game but just weren't able to get it back.

"I couldn't be happier to get my first start under my belt but it's more important to be winning the game but we didn't do that so it's a little bit of a bittersweet moment for me. All things considered I was pretty happy with my personal fitness. I felt good throughout the match. If you put the work in then you hope that when the matchday comes you feel good, and that was the case for me on Saturday. It was a great run by Scotty to get across the first defender for his goal. I put it into the right area and he was there with a perfect finish. I put another one in for Coley and he was a little bit unlucky not to score. We had quite a few opportunities to score but it just didn't happen for us."

Lucas Neill will be available again for Wednesday evening's FA Cup fifth-round replay at Middlesbrough, but Spector is just glad to be in contention again. "Of course it's frustrating when you're not playing but you just keep going," he said. "We've got a great team here and a lot of strength in the squad. The team has been playing extremely well and winning games so it's understandable that I wasn't able to work my way in. I've just got to make the most of my opportunities when they do come. I'm a West Ham player and it's a great club and I'm more than happy to be here. Obviously my aim is to work my way into the starting eleven, just as every other play wants to. That's what makes the squad so strong. Everyone wants to play and that's what has spurred our success this season."

Whether he is selected or not, the defender says it is important for the Hammers to get back on the pitch and get Saturday's scarcely-deserved defeat at Bolton out of their systems. "It may be a cliché that it's good to be playing again so soon but it's very true. We've had a good cup run this year and we want to continue that. It's a game where we're going to go up there looking to win. I think we've got every chance to do that."

Another defender on his way back is Danny Gabbidon. The Welshman has not featured for the Hammers since suffering a serious groin injury in December 2007, but is now stepping up his rehabilitation following a long lay-off. Wales boss John Toshack was not alone in voicing his doubts over whether Gabbidon would ever return to competitive action having not made an international appearance in over 15 months. Yet the 29-year-old says he is happy with his progress and has been encouraged by the patience shown in him by West Ham boss Zola. "I've been to see a few different people and the club have been really good and anything that I've wanted they have done," he said. "I'm working hard and trying to get back to training and once I get to that stage it's about getting back into the team, which is doing very well at the moment. I've spoken to the manager a few times and he has been really good to me. He asks how I am and how I'm feeling, when I'm coming back and he's been really good."

In other news, Gianfranco Zola has reportedly joined the race to sign highly-rated Wolves defender Kevin Foley in the summer. Several media reports have linked the Hammers, as well as Everton and Blackburn, with a move for the player who is rated at around the £2.5m mark. Foley, who cost Wolves £6,000 when they signed him from Luton in August 2007, is out of contract at the end of next season and Wolves will want to keep him and hand him a new deal at the club. Whether he accepts is likely to depend on if they are successful in their efforts to win Premiership football this season.

Bolton Wanderers 2 West Ham United 1

Loss Leaves Gianfranco Zola In State Of Disbelief by Gary Jacob
As a player, Gianfranco Zola could always run off any frustrations on the pitch, but losing a ridiculously one-sided match presents different problems as West Ham United manager. The Italian emerged from the dressing-room more than an hour after the match in stunned disbelief, head shaking, bemoaning the injustice of a farcical result that spoke volumes for Bolton Wanderers’ sole ambition of staying in the top flight with little regard for their football... Times
Bolton Hang On Despite Scott Parker's Toil by Mark Ogden
There is something about the Reebok Stadium that brings West Ham United out in a cold sweat. Not a single victory has been secured in Bolton since Burnden Park was vacated for the Reebok in 1997, but that could all have changed had there been eleven Scott Parkers in Gianfranco Zola's team on Saturday... Telegraph
Trotters Boss Megson Urges Fabio To Call Up Kev by Chris Wheeler
Very few defenders come out on top in a head-to-head with Kevin Davies - just ask West Ham's Matthew Upson. But there is one battle he seems destined to lose. A senior England cap remains a faint hope for the combative Bolton striker, despite his call-up to Fabio Capello's extended squad for the friendly against Spain earlier this month... Mail
Bolton Stir From Hibernation To Nail Hammers by Guy Hodgson
No one would mistake muscular Bolton Wanderers for a bunch of northern softies but they do not like the cold. Their form dropped like the temperature during the recent freeze so there is no need to look at the thermometer this morning. Just check this result. With the first breath of Spring in the air they recorded only their second win in eight Premier League matches yesterday to soothe relegation concerns that seemed a distant fear when they had six Premier League wins to their name by the end of November. This victory pushed the total to a princely nine... Independent
Taylor And Davies Give Bolton The Points Despite Parker Strike by Steve Bierley
Gary Megson may have felt the need to chant "Remember, remember the wins in November" before this important victory over West Ham United. That had been a golden month for Bolton Wanderers, with four wins out of five, and before this match Wanderers had only won twice since. A dreadful performance away to Everton had piled on the worries and there was huge need for a turn of fortunes... Observer

Hammers Bring Me Back To Reality On Bleecker Street
By Phill Jupitus

New York has hitherto been a place where I have had the word “brash” completely redefined. Imagine the pissiest waiting staff you ever had to deal with. Now imagine a city full of them. However, over these past few days, locals have been helpful, courteous and even, dare I say it, smiling! This proved to be such a culture shock that I craved some negativity just to put my world back in order. I knew just the thing.

Paul Blackman is the former artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre and now lives in Manhattan. Over dinner, talk turned to football and he breezily told us about a bar on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village that shows Premier League games.

So two days later we found ourselves speeding down Park Avenue in a yellow cab, the driver bemoaning the lack of Test match coverage in America. He then mused philosophically that having two jobs and a family, he wouldn’t have much time for cricket anyway. The bar was sparsely filled with various Brits and interested locals.

A smiling girl in a West Ham hat wandered in from the cold and took a seat. Steaming mugs of decent tea were put in front of us and a full English was served. The Fox Soccer Channel is a very American-looking network, hosted by a very upright chap called Christian Miles (which sounds like an evangelical bus company) and Warren Barton, the former Wimbledon player, who has rather fallen on his feet with this gig.

Alongside us was Martin Bashir, the expatriate British journalist with whom I appeared in the UK soccer flick Mike Bassett: England Manager. Being a Chelsea man, he’d just seen them get three points and stayed on to watch us, presumably to look who they’d be buying in the summer. Right up until Matt Taylor’s free kick I was having a laugh. Then the second Bolton goal made me realise it was going to be one of those games and I felt oddly at home.

Hat girl got up and wandered out. “Where are you going?” we asked. “They’re losing!” she whined.

Not having the time to explain the practicalities of life as a Hammer, we let her go. After the final whistle, I realised the things I now hated most about New York were the Yankees and Gary Megson’s smiling face.

Times column

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Siren Song Of Stamford Bridge

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.

Gary Megson reckons football management is a suicidal occupation and that his days are numbered — along with fellow ‘kamikaze pilot’ Gianfranco Zola. Bolton boss Megson believes he and his West Ham opposite number will soon be for the chop because of the lack of job security for Premier League managers. "You look at Chelsea and Portsmouth sacking their managers in the past couple of weeks and you start to wonder why we put ourselves through this," reflects Megson. "Myself, Zola and countless others, we’ve got the job security of a kamikaze pilot but everyone accepts it. You can have a long-term plan but whether you get the chance to see it through is open to doubt."

If Gianfranco Zola is feeling particularly self-destructive then he should probably avoid all newspapers for the foreseeable future, so intent are they on ushering the Sardinian towards the mantic siren song of Stamford Bridge. The latest beguiling susurration comes via Bill Bradshaw in the Express, who reports that on the day that Guus Hiddink stressed in his first press conference that he would not seek to stay at Chelsea beyond the end of this season, Roman Abramovich has already earmarked Zola and Steve Clarke as his replacement in the summer.

Zola is widely regarded as one of the most successful foreign playing imports into the Premier League during his seven years at Chelsea and his ability as a manager is now having an impact at West Ham. While Clarke, another former Blues player, left Scolari’s coaching staff in fairly acrimonious circumstances earlier this season and many now recognise that his worth as an on-pitch organiser was greatly undervalued during his final months at Chelsea. Bradshaw suggests West Ham United are sure to try to resist any approach for the pair but 'understands' discreet soundings have already been taken about following up Chelsea’s interest at the highest level.

Over at the Sunday Times Juventus Ranieri has added to the insidious media chorus by stating his belief that the Hammers boss is capable of taking charge of Chelsea. "Gianfranco Zola is doing very well as a manager," Ranieri is quoted as saying. "Could he be a good choice for Chelsea? Why not? He has a great history with the club and the fans would be very happy." Ranieri admits, though, that he initially doubted Zola’s suitability for top-flight management. "At the beginning I didn’t think Gianfranco would do so well," he revealed . "I don’t know exactly why I have been surprised by how well he has done, but I just didn’t think he could do this for a big team. Yes, I thought he may be a good coach for younger players, like the under-21s, because he sets a great example. But I’m very happy for him, surprised and very happy."

Away from such choppy waters and Zola hopes to have Kieron Dyer available again next month. The fragile midfielder ended 17 months of injury frustration last month when he returned from a double leg fracture but after making a brief appearance against Barnsley in the FA Cup, picked up a calf problem. Zola has now confirmed that he has undergone another operation, but he should be back in March. "Kieron had another operation which went very well and it wasn't a big thing," the Hammers boss told the Sunday Mirror. "He is already doing something with the physio again and should be available soon." Hopefully also back soon will be James Collins, who is due to undergo a scan today on the hamstring injury that forced him out of yesterday's game. Zola said: "I do not know how long he is going to be out but it does not look good. He will have a scan tomorrow. It is a pity that we will lose him for a while as James has been playing well."

In other news, Histon youngster Lee Brennan is heading to Upton Park for a two-week trial in east London. Brennan spent a week with Manchester United in the summer and Histon manager Steve Fallon believes it is testament to the hard work that has gone into developing his club's youth academy. The talented young striker was one of four promising players to sign a contract at the start of the season and his two-week stint at a Premier League club is a great opportunity for him to further his career, while giving the Stutes' reputation for developing players a significant boost. "Lee has done well and the club have been monitoring him," said Fallon, who believes Brennan could follow in the footsteps of Jack Collison, who was spotted by the Hammers at Cambridge United in 2005. "They will have a look at him over the two weeks and see if they can push him on and be another Jack Collison. Hopefully they'll like what they see. It's great for the Academy."

Finally, United management are said to be delighted with the goalkeeping talent currently at the club. Young stars Adam Street and Deniz Mehmet have been called-up by Canada and Turkey respectively and Academy goalkeeping coach Jerome John said the call-ups were a boost for both the players involved and the club as a whole. He told "Adam has been doing really well. He has worked really hard and has been rewarded with a couple of reserve team appearances. When he has been called upon he has done well and we have high hopes for him for the future. Ludek Miklosko is excited about his prospects and the fact that we have another good young goalkeeper coming through. Deniz has also played well for us and is going to represent his country at an age-group a year higher than he could be playing in. He has recently come back from a successful tournament in La Manga in Spain and is full of confidence. Myself, Ludek and all the coaching staff at the club are all very excited about the promising crop of young goalkeepers we have coming through and there are more to come."

Alongside Street and Mehmet, West Ham also possess England international Robert Green, former Czech Republic Under-21 international Jan Lastuvka - who is on a year-long loan from Shakhtar Donetsk - Czech Under-19 international Marek Stech and Hungary Under-21 international Peter Kurucz. Gianfranco Zola included Kurucz in his squad for yesterday's defeat at Bolton. The 20-year-old goalkeeper has joined on loan from Ujpest in his native Hungary until the end of the season with a view to a permanent transfer. An Under-21 international, Kurucz warmed up with No1 Robert Green and understudy Jan Lastuvka as goalkeeping coach Ludek Miklosko put the shot-stoppers through their paces.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Roger And The Pole Dance

Gianfranco Zola admits he cannot understand those who see the UEFA Cup as a nuisance and is desperate to take his West Ham United side into Europe as soon as possible. Victory at Bolton could lift the Hammers into seventh place in the Barclays Premier League - firmly in contention for next season's rebranded Europa League. For Zola, that would represent a significant triumph. While the Champions League remains a coveted prize, Europe's second competition has suffered from a downgraded status in recent seasons, with Wanderers boss Gary Megson placing it firmly below last season's relegation scrap and Harry Redknapp selecting a shadow Tottenham side against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Zola, who won the UEFA Cup during his time with Parma, insists any continental cup deserves the utmost respect - even if the standard is not quite the same as when he lifted the trophy in 1995. "For me the UEFA Cup is not the same as the one I won with Parma because it is a different story," said Zola. "Only the teams which finished first in their leagues were in the Champions League and those who finished second and third were in the UEFA Cup, so it was a strong competition. Now it is different but it is still a European competition and I would love to be involved in a competition like that. I don't understand why people don't like it but I am sure there are still plenty of teams who want to be in it. Being in the UEFA Cup would be a nice problem to have. If teams don't like the competition, then maybe we should change the format, but for me it a good tournament to be involved in because it can make your team better."

Zola also finished as a UEFA Cup runner-up in 1994 before enjoying success in the 1998 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup with Chelsea. He believes the experience of playing overseas can only be good for players. "It's not just the silverware you can get but the chance to give you players some European experience," he said. "I'm not the kind of manager to stop the players from thinking about it. It's good to have ambitious targets and work hard to achieve them. If they want to be ambitious then I am very happy if they work hard to make their ambitions happy."

Meanwhile, things have gone from bad to worse for Julian Faubert. The United loanee has contrived to ease himself out of Real Madrid boss Juande Ramos' plans after just three weeks and about 30 minutes of first-team football. The French midfielder was a substitute in his first week at the club and was then an unused substitute last week. Now Faubert has not been named in Ramos' 19 man squad to play Real Betis tonight despite the fact that the Spanish coach admits he is considering rotating players with one eye on Wednesday's Champions League tie with Liverpool. Ramos said: "Possibly playing one big game and then inside a week being properly recuperated to play another one is too much so there could be rotations."

Elsewhere Pawel Brozek has shamelessly reciprocated the come hither glances of Roger Cross with the player's agent indicating his client would be well up for a move to Upton Park. The Polish striker's goalscoring exploits for Wisla Krakow has brought him to the attention of a plethora of European clubs. He was also the star turn in Poland's recent international game against Wales, earning rave reviews after yet another powerful display. West Ham's chief scout was one of those watching and he has spoken favourably of the players abilities. "I have heard the rumours about interest from West Ham and I believe they watched him playing for Poland," Agent Osuch the Panda told Sky Sports. "Of course Pawel would be interested in a move to West Ham. They are a nice club, they are in London and they are playing good football under Zola. Pawel is the most talked about player in Poland and there are a lot of clubs interested in him from Russia, Germany, France and England. He will stay at Wisla until the summer and then we will see what happens."

Brozek is a combative centre forward who shares some similarities to Dean Ashton (though hopefully not in the ankle or groin department). He has been something of a well kept secret back in his homeland, and only really come into prominence in the last couple of seasons. Now he has seemingly decided it could be time to leave his beloved Krakow and seek a new challenge elsewhere. That's not to say that Ashton no longer figures in Gianfranco Zola's future plans. "For me it is unfortunate because I have not had Ashton in my side before," the Italian said yesterday. "It's a big blow because I know how important he can be for us. I'm sorry especially for him though, being out so long is not an easy thing. He is one of those player whose qualities would be perfect for this team. I'm sure he would like to be involved but when he comes back he will make up for it I'm sure."

The comparatively chaste Ivory Coast international Gervinho has demurred at the possibility of moving to the Premier League after a month of speculation linking him with West Ham United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hostpur, Manchester City and Newcastle United. The 21-year-old striker, who turned in several eye-catching performances for his homeland at the Beijing Olympics, looks set to leave French side Le Mans in the near future as he looks to take his career to the next level. Speaking to Sky Sports, Gervinho revealed: "My future is at Le Mans at the moment. It is here that I belong. Anything else is just a dream at the moment. The Premier League? That is just a dream. One day, maybe next year, maybe in two years, I will go."

Another unsubstantiated report has West Ham United joining Everton in the race for Roma forward Stefano Okaka Chuka according to reports in Italy. The Italian press reported Everton's interest in January and now claim Gianfranco Zola is supposedly ready to join the battle for the Nigerian born striker. Okaka Chuka is an Italian citizen which would allow the striker to move without a work permit. Zola has reportedly been aware of the player's talent since he was the Under-21's boss for Italy and sources on the continent suggest he is now among the front-runners to sign the starlet. Other reports continue to credit the Hammers manager with an interest in Sampdoria's Italian international Antonio Cassano.

Finally, is it possible that someone has miraculously discovered the secret of Danny Gabbidon's mysterious 14 month absence? Speculation is rife across several West Ham forums, sparked by a source claiming to have close connections to the player, that Gabbidon has been suffering from a painful spine alignment problem that was finally identified by the Italian medical staff when carefully analysing his gait. This, according to the physios, was the main cause of his hernias. The source was then isolated to his neck bone alignment, and ultimately, to his jaw. The end result of all that is he had six, or possibly seven, molars removed to realign his jaw, which in turn has got his neck back in kilter. He is now reportedly back in training and has been trying to adjust to a new running style by pounding the roads around Cardiff. Gabbidon apparently has no other issues but is obviously nowhere near match fit yet. I have no idea as to the voracity of this story but it seems genuine and it is nice to have some news of the player (rather than spurious claims of terminal illness, drug abuse, marital problems and debilitating bouts of depression) following such a prolonged silence.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Rising To The Challenge

Gianfranco Zola is all too aware of the challenge posed by Bolton Wanderers on Saturday but is confident his West Ham United side can rise to the occasion. "We know what kind of team they are," stated the Sardinian. "We know they are very physical and we need to find other solutions to get round their physical aspects. We've been working and we will try and surprise them if we can." Zola was just four games into his reign as manager when Gary Megson's men won 3-1 at the Boleyn Ground in October, but the Hammers have evolved as a team since then and go into the match on a lengthy undefeated away run that stretches back to 29 October - just over three weeks since that reverse fixture in east London. United currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League table, with 33 points from 25 matches. A victory could lift the Hammers above Wigan Athletic into seventh position should the Latics fail to win at Middlesbrough this weekend.

Speaking on the official site, the Italian said: "It's going to be a tough match. They are a tough team to play against and this occasion may be a little tougher. But we are going there to do a job and to get the three points that will be vital for us. We will give them all of the respect but we will play our game and try to win. We have quite a good record away from home so it's an opportunity for us to extend our record away from home in a tough match. It's a very important test for me."

West Ham may have to do without Carlton Cole, who had to leave the field against Middlesbrough with a bruised ankle. The Hammers' leading scorer this season has been hard at work at Chadwell Heath, although the game may have come too soon for him. "Carlton Cole, is making very good progress but we don't know if he's going to be available for this match or the match against Middlesbrough," admitted Zola. "He is working very hard and is getting better. Luis Boa Morte is going to be out for two or three weeks due to a groin problem and Lucas Neill is suspended. Apart from that everyone else is available"

If the England international does not recover sufficiently in time for the trip to the north-west, then Zola has faith in the rest of his players, with James Tomkins and Valon Behrami fit again and January recruits Savio and Radoslav Kovac itching for their first starts. "We have enough without Carlton. This team has been doing well because of Carlton but also because of the other players. They have all been very good and I'm sure if Carlton cannot make it, the rest of the team will give an extra bit and we will make sure we will do the job."

Diego Tristan insists he is ready to answer West Ham's striker crisis and shoulder the goalscoring burden in the absence of Cole. The former Deportivo La Coruna forward has vowed to pick up the slack and become the club's new target man. The 33-year-old Andalusian has yet to start a first-team game for the Hammers, but seems certain to be handed a chance after replacing Cole against Boro last weekend. "I have not played much up to this moment, but I hope that now I can play - I'm totally convinced of my abilities," he said. "I have always played [in my career] and it's not something you forget. I'm getting used to being a part of the team and to English football, which is very quick and played at tremendous speed. It is difficult for technical players because the referees never blow the whistle. But I hope I can show my abilities."

Meanwhile, Robert Green insists Gianfranco Zola is the man to bring stability to West Ham. The keeper has served under three bosses since moving from Norwich three years ago and wants the Hammers to shake off their ‘crisis-club’ tag. Reports of boardroom instability from the Carlos Tevez transfer saga has seen the Eastenders lurch from crisis to crisis but Green says that Zola, who has been at the helm for just five months, can take the club to the next level. "It’s been topsy-turvy since I arrived," he told the Daily Star. "Everyone is looking for a crisis-club – and sometimes it’s been West Ham. But we’re on an upward curve, one where we’ve been picking up results with a fairly settled team and managerial staff, and it’s been an enjoyable recent experience."

A further indication of this new found stability has been the decision by Scott Parker to sign a new four-and-a-half year contract. Gianfranco Zola has described his pride at convincing the midfielder to commit his future to West Ham and has urged the club's other stars to follow his lead. Parker was linked with a move to cash-rich Manchester City in January but remained at Upton Park and last week signed a new deal keeping him with the Hammers until 2013. For Zola that represents a significant triumph and he is now hopeful that other key men, including England goalkeeper Green, Lucas Neill and Matthew Upson, will join the midfielder in agreeing extensions.

The Italian insists that tying down Parker, who had a largely unhappy stint with Chelsea following his £10million move from Charlton in 2004, is a step in the right direction. "We are very proud to keep a player like him. It shows we are doing a good job and the players appreciate what we are doing," said Zola. "It's not a matter of money because if it was he would have gone. He likes what we are doing here and that's a positive sign."

Zola enjoyed a rather more distinguished career at Stamford Bridge than Parker and is still looked upon as arguably the club's finest foreign import. But he insists that players should look for time on the pitch more than the glamour - not to mention the financial rewards - available at the likes of Chelsea and City. "I would personally not go to a team who can give me a lot of money but not play me," Zola said. "That is the problem with the squads at the big teams. They have 24 internationals, sometimes more, so they don't get many games."

On the ongoing negotiations with his other top players, Zola added: "Robert Green is due to sign a new contract and the club are also speaking to Lucas Neill. I think they are happy to stay. I don't think he (Neill) asked for a pay rise but I think the club have tried to make him happy. He is a player who has done a lot for us this year and the club want to extend his contract."

Zola also had praise for 20-year-old midfielder Jack Collison, who is likely to remain in the side to face Bolton at the Reebok Stadium on Saturday. Collison, already signed to a lengthy contract, has unexpectedly emerged as a central figure for West Ham this season due to injuries and Zola thinks there is even more to come from the Wales international. "Jack Collison has been a real surprise for me, not just because of his qualities but because of his personality," Zola said. "You can play good matches and bad matches but you can see a player with personality, who is willing to give everything to the game. He has been fantastic in this way. He's a player who is going to become a very, very important player in this country and for West Ham for a long time."

Lastly, Sergio Ramos has hinted that Real Madrid are simply using Julien Faubert as a stopgap on the right wing. Los Merengues right back Ramos feels that Faubert is a long way from being a key player at the Bernabeu and believes that the Frenchman, who is on loan from West Ham, was signed primarily as cover. "A right winger was missing, and we needed a player that wasn’t cup-tied in the Champions League," revealed Ramos. "We play him when needed and he won’t necessarily play every game. Tactically, when we will need to play someone at right midfield, he could be an option."

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Godfather Of Green Street

Ever since Ron Greenwood sent forth Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters from Upton Park to win the World Cup, few teams have done more than West Ham, as their most celebrated fan, Alf Garnett, might put it, "for Queen and bleedin' country". A grateful Buckingham Palace responded when they made them the first club with two former players elevated to the rank of knight, Sir Geoff and then Sir Trevor Brooking. Recognition, perhaps, that throughout the eras, West Ham United have always played as though their famous claret-and-blue shirts were edged in ermine.

They may never have won the championship, but the Hammers have acquired a reputation for doing things in a certain style while producing a constant supply of dazzling young players. According to Greenwood's philosophy: "The crowds at West Ham have never been rewarded by results but they keep turning up because of the good football they see. Other clubs will suffer from the old bugbear that results count more than anything. This has been the ruination of English soccer."

Greenwood's personal epiphany came on a dank November afternoon at Wembley in 1953 when Hungary's Magnificent Magyars trounced England 6-3 in a display of football the like of which the world had never seen. It changed Greenwood's philosophy of the game. Within a decade West Ham, the club he now managed, were imitating the best bits of Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis, sweeping the ball around in intricate patterns, and winning the FA Cup, European Cup-Winners' Cup and providing the backbone of England's successful World Cup-winning side.

That style has continued to evolve over the years, and the name of West Ham is synonymous with open, attacking football. It doesn't always show itself in results, but it is pretty to watch for those who prefer aesthetics. Greenwood died at the grand old age of 84 in 2006, but his life's work still breathes. One of the most adherent of disciples, Tony Carr, is still preaching the Greenwood philosophy six decades on.

Carr, 58, is now the godfather of Green Street, the man who has nurtured the talent emerging from West Ham’s youth academy over the past 35 years. Born in Bow and a lifelong fan he joined West Ham as a 15-year-old apprentice in 1966, polishing the boots of the three returning World Cup heroes. But competition was fierce and the young centre-forward found himself looking for a new club just four years later, ending up at then non-league Barnet. He admits that he did not have the ability to play at the highest level and a broken leg left him considering his future in the game.

"I just didn't have what it takes to be a West Ham player, it's as simple as that," muses Carr. "But I'd been a Hammers fan all my life – one of my earliest memories is gazing in wonderment at the glow of the floodlights from our council estate in Bow – so when John Lyall rang up to ask if I fancied doing a bit of coaching, it was lovely to be given the chance to come `home'. He said 'I heard you broke your leg, what are you doing?'. I said I wasn't doing anything at the moment and he asked me to come and do a little bit of coaching. There was an opportunity of a part-time job. I went for a chat and I took the job on a part-time basis, which was as assistant then to the youth coach, Ronnie Boyce. That was in 1973 and I've been here ever since."

It proved to be an inspired decision by Lyall. The job became full-time in 1980 and Carr's dedication has helped mould some of the greatest players ever to pull on the claret and blue. Of the recent players to have emerged from the self-styled Academy are Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson and Michael Carrick, England internationals all. They say that if West Ham had managed to keep them, they and not Manchester United or Chelsea would be Premier League champions, and at a fraction of the cost; that if you could bottle what Carr knows about football, you would make a fortune.

To a certain extent, Carr did bottle it by producing How To Coach A Soccer Team, subtitled 'Professional advice on building a winning team'. It is a veritable coaching bible; a distillation into 144 pages of more than 30 years' worth of practical knowledge gained on the playing fields of metropolitan Essex, a welter of drills and tips for coaches on how to get the best out of players at all levels. Diagrams, photographs and a simple narrative break the game down into bit-sized chunks that can be integrated into match play. There is even a diagnostic section where common failings are analysed and suggestions offered.

Among many common sense pieces of advice, Carr stresses the "importance of constant practice of the basic skills and techniques of the game by players, no matter how experienced they are - repetition becomes permanent". Rio Ferdinand endorses the approach: "Tony was always brilliant at reducing the game to its vital components - movement, control, passing - and designing drills and games that would hone each of them. It was always both demanding and fun."

Although he is far too modest to admit it, as a polisher of youthful diamonds Carr may be the most influential coach in the land. "No way is it all down to me," he claims. "It's very difficult to say why we've been so successful in youth terms; I suppose it's down to a number of factors but, most importantly, our recruitment area of east London and Essex is really fertile. Also, Upton Park was known as `the academy of football' right back to the days of Bobby Moore – and long before academies became commonplace – so youngsters know they'll be given an opportunity, no matter what age they are. The key is finding the talent – and we always had an outstanding recruitment officer in Jimmy Hampson – then, having found them, nurturing them and giving them the chance when the time is right."

Yet Carr is not resting on his laurels because he knows the work he and his staff do is of incalculable benefit to the club, especially in the economic climate. "You can get mugged with young players – some just don't develop for whatever reason – but you can usually tell when a lad has that something out of the ordinary. Tony Cottee and Jermain Defoe were scoring goals as 10-year-olds, while Rio Ferdinand was a fantastic athlete in the centre of midfield. We only converted him to centre-back when he became a full-time professional."

Freddie Sears, James Tomkins and Jack Collison are the latest academy graduates to make an impression on the first-team squad but Carr is determined to keep the conveyor-belt of talent turning. "We impose a target on ourselves to produce one player every year good enough to go into the first team squad," he says. "Not just signing as a pro but good enough for the squad. That’s a minimum requirement. You’re not going to produce players every year, but if you’ve got five, six, seven or more in the last five years then job done. You might have two years when no-one comes through, but in other years you have two or three. Last year we had three making their debuts – Jack, Freddie and James."

Carr, now 58, has nurtured the fledgling careers of a dizzying array of talent since those salad days of the early seventies, so does anyone really stand out? "There are many players for different reasons," he posits. "When we first spotted Joe Cole it was obvious he had unbelievable talent. But even at that age you can never say this player’s going to play for England or our first team. It’s a gradual process and you never really know if they’re good enough until you put them in the first team, that’s the bottom line. What we do year-on-year is make a judgment using our past experience, assess each individual and see if he’s got what it takes to be a top player – if he’s got the talent and impact in the game."

Glen Johnson is a good example, thinks Carr. "He came here as a centre-forward aged 10, played on the right wing, then centre-back and ended up at right-back in the first team where he made an immediate impact. Now he’s playing for England." Johnson was sold after the Irons’ relegation in 2003, along with Cole, Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick. Selling academy players swells the club’s coffers, but Carr admitted he would prefer them to stay. Like most West Ham supporters he is all too aware of how the stream of talent he has helped produce has moved on to pastures new and it is only natural to think 'what if...? "Yes. We've often sat around the dinner table with friends and family and said 'If those players were playing for you now, think about that. It's a nice dream over a glass of wine but it was never going to be a reality. I have to be a realist and accept market forces dictate, such as the fire sale we had to have when we got relegated," he reflects.

Carr understands there may come a point when a player has to move on. "If we’ve had good service from him and we end up getting a fair transfer fee for him the fans should accept it’s part and parcel of the game," he says. "It’s up to the youth academy to find the next one. It opens the door for someone else so you mustn’t get too sentimental. I’m a West Ham supporter and always have been, so I’m disappointed in that respect, but I have to put my director’s hat on and say that’s the name of the game. It is sad when you see them move on. You’re not going to get a Bobby Moore or a Trevor Brooking that sign at 16 and stay to 32. That’s not going to happen now or it’s going to be very rare. The ultimate success is they play 500 games for the first team and you sell them for £10million or you win the Champions League. But in terms of getting them in the team and getting a financial return the academy’s given good value."

One aspect Carr would like to see is the replacement of the reserve league with an under-21 league, giving clubs the chance to hang on to late developers. "There are too many people within football who want to discard people too quickly today," notes Carr. "We should keep them until they’re 21, because some people develop late. Not everyone is like Joe Cole, going straight into the team at 17. An under-21 league in place of the reserve league would be great because we may unearth a player later in the system we may have discarded at 18. It may never happen. If there’s a big enough ground-swell from the clubs it’ll happen, but if the clubs don’t want it it’ll not happen."

One player who did slip through the net was England skipper John Terry, who spent five years at the Hammers' academy before heading west to link up with Chelsea at the age of 14. His decision to move still baffles Carr. "You'll have to ask John [about] that," he smiles. "I've never really found out the reason why. I think Chelsea lured him and he felt perhaps a change is what he wanted. You'll have to ask him and his parents because I really don't know the exact reason. I still bump into John now and again and he's still John from east London. He's still the same guy. There's no animosity there. I'm pleased for him. He's done fantastic. He's a great player, a great servant for Chelsea and for England."

Terry is not alone, Kieran Richardson, Jloyd Samuel, Freddy Eastwood, Jimmy Bullard all fell through the Upton Park cracks for varying reasons. Yet Carr is determined to keep unearthing the best young talent for a few more years to come, whether they become international players or not. "I'm still enjoying it. From the day I walked in here I've loved it because every year is different. Every year I have a different squad and every year I have to develop different players. The strategy remains the same but it's just a matter of getting your next group of players to emulate the group who've gone before, so the challenge is always there."

And Carr is certain new manager Gianfranco Zola will be keen for the academy to continue producing top-quality players for the first team. "He's been quoted that he's a great believer in youth development and the academies so I'm sure the relationship with Gianfranco, like it's been with all the other managers I've worked under, will give me the same support at the Academy as all the others did," states Carr. "The club is steeped in that tradition and in my opinion it would be a fool that would try and change that. We have to tinker and change and we have to go with the way the game develops."

One of those developments is likely to be an increase in the number of overseas players finding their way to the Hammers academy. Hungarian teenager Balint Bajner and Holmar Orn Eyjolffson from Iceland are already starring for the youth team and more are likely to follow. It's something Carr accepts as part of the modern game, particularly considering the example of Arsenal, whose success is based on cherry-picking the best young talent in Europe. "There are more foreign young players in the game than there ever was," said Carr. "We won't ever say no to that, and we have brought in one or two young foreign players just to see how we can develop them. But there's nothing like bringing your own through from home. Bringing a kid in at nine or 10 and nurturing him right through like Freddie Sears last year. I remember him coming here as a nine-year-old, a little tiny tot, and to see him score that goal against Blackburn in the Premier League and now establish himself as a good squad member, that's a fantastic pleasure."

There's a strong case for saying Carr is a major influence on England's bid to make South Africa in 2010, although he naturally plays down his role. When the national side runs out to play their World Cup qualifiers he is one man who can perhaps feel prouder than most when he sees Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Jermain Defoe all prominent in England colours, as well as variously Joe Cole, Glen Johnson and Michael Carrick. "I wouldn't like to take the credit for it," he says. "West Ham's youth academy has in some respects produced half the England team, and we take great pleasure in that, especially as the previous youth academy produced the Moore, Hurst, Peters era. We've got a fantastic tradition and I'm just lucky enough to have been in it this long to carry on that tradition, which is what our club's all about.

"There's been some great individuals along the way, like Paul Ince and Tony Cottee, but that little crop that came through - Frank and Rio, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, then Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe - are the crux of the England team and you could say they are the best crop [we've had through] because they are that close together. Those six alone are enough to be proud of and I follow all their careers."

So Should England return from South Africa in possession of the World Cup next year, you can expect to hear Garnett's voice reminding the nation, in his own inimitable fashion, that Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, John Terry and Sol Campbell all began their careers as schoolboys in London's East End, as did fellow-England internationals who, for one reason or another, were left behind: Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson and Michael Carrick. Even David Beckham is recorded as having made a few appearances for the West Ham youth team before being snaffled away by Sir Alex Ferguson.

"For a club like ours, I think we can feel rightly proud that we've produced so many England players over the years," says Carr. "It's fantastic that such a large number of the squad have a West Ham connection but, to be honest, I can't remember Beckham ever being with us. I've heard the stories that he played once or twice but I was probably involved with another age group at the time. When I watched Rio, Frank, Joe and Michael all walk out of the ground to join their first England camps, I felt immensely proud for them as people. With Jermain and Glen it was slightly different because they'd moved on to Tottenham and Chelsea by the time they won their caps, so I had to congratulate them by phone. Everyone at the club knew they were all very special young players, but we were obviously biased so it's nice when the England coach shares your opinion."

Since 1973 six managers of the first team squad have come and gone, but Tony Carr remains at his post developing the players of tomorrow. He faithfully begins his work anew every July, when he casts his unerring expert eye over the latest intake in the hope of finding another Bobby Moore in his midst. "That's the really exciting thing about this job, that you start out every new season in the hope of uncovering a little nugget. There's another Frank Lampard out there somewhere and our task is to find him, teach him to take his first steps in football, then sit back and watch him run…" And with that, the lineage conceived at Wembley in 1953 is still alive and kicking.

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