Tuesday, 24 February 2009

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!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...excellent interview...


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