Gianfranco Zola has backed Luis Boa Morte to beat the West Ham hate mob which is making the winger’s life a misery. The Hammers boss has been stunned at the stick Boa Morte has taken this season and he wants fans to get off his back. The player was serenaded with a chorus of boos and ironic cheers when he limped out of Saturday's FA Cup draw with Middlesbrough with a groin injury that will keep him out for a month.
The injury is the latest in a series of niggles that have dogged the Portuguese international's miserable stay in East London. In addition, a series of erratic displays and a paucity of goals (One in 30 league starts to be precise) has hardly endeared Boa Morte to the Upton Park faithful, who have never really embraced him in the way Fulham fans did at his previous club.
During those tumultuous six and a half years at Craven Cottage, Boa Morte thrilled the home fans with his mixture of speed, skill and spite. The latter quality has always been a distinguishing feature of his game, leading to a relationship with referees which once prompted former Fulham manager Chris Coleman to joke that his side would never have a chance of qualifying for Europe through the fair play trophy while Boa Morte was in the side. Balancing the indiscretions, however, was a sequence of performances which yielded a regular if modest contribution of goals but always a major contribution in terms of influence and dynamism. Boa Morte always had the power to transform football matches.
It was a power which Arsène Wenger appreciated very early on, as, in one of his first signings upon joining Arsenal, he paid Sporting Lisbon £1.75m for their hugely promising 20-year-old winger in 1997. In the two years Boa Morte spent at Highbury he picked up Premiership and FA Cup winners' medals as part of the 1997-98 Double squad, although he missed out on the FA Cup final itself. Let go by Arsenal after he failed to earn a regular first-team place, he was signed for Southampton by Dave Jones in August 1999, but by January of the following year Jones had been replaced by Hoddle. And Hoddle, as Boa Morte recalls with a wry smile, was not a fan of his style of football.
"I only played three times for him, and at the end of the season he told me I wasn't part of his plans and I could go," recalls Boa Morte. "But it was the end of July and I had difficulty getting another club. Even Huddersfield said no, they had a full squad, they didn't need anyone. I was struggling to get a club and I got a bit lost. I thought to myself, 'What am I going to do?' And then it came to my mind to phone Mr Wenger to ask for his help. He was always very clear with me when I was at Arsenal. He was very good."
Wenger contacted his fellow Frenchman Jean Tigana, then in charge of Fulham, and arranged a trial, after which Boa Morte joined on a year's loan. That move became permanent after a season in which Fulham won the First Division with a record number of 101 points, with Boa Morte contributing 18 goals in 39 appearances. Thus was launched a Fulham career which ended only when Boa Morte moved across London to Upton Park in the January transfer window two years ago for a fee believed to be around £5million. He was plunged straight into a relegation battle, but played a part in West Ham's unlikely recovery as they remained unbeaten in their last nine games, contributing a crucial first goal in a 3-0 win at fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic which seemed to convince players and fans alike that Premier League status might yet be retained.
Yet the boos never relented and Boa Morte's form has continued to be sporadic, especially in front of goal. "It's been one of my most difficult periods in football since I came to West Ham," he says. "But I'm always able and ready and up for the fight, you know, I'm not going to turn my back away. We are in a better position as a club, so of course I feel better. Personally I just need to score one or two goals to get the thing going because I have been putting in the hard work to get back from my injuries but it is just the scoring bit that hasn't come along. It's been my fault because I have had a few chances, so I'll keep working hard."
Zola says he just doesn’t understand the boos from the fans for him. "He has been fantastic for us and every time he has played he has done a proper job for the team," he points out. "In the dressing room he has been great, too. Every manager wants a player like him in their squad. He does not deserve the treatment he is getting right now and, of course, it affects him — it would affect anybody." Boa Morte turned down a move to Hull last month over personal terms, the decision of a distinctly unambitious player on ridiculous wages scoffed the Mail at the time. Not so, insisted Zola yesterday. "Luis wanted to prove he can be useful rather than leave. He has my utmost respect."
It is not a view shared by a vociferous section of the West Ham support. "I will take the blame," says Boa Morte. "That's a side of football that exists, and we are here to take that. My back is big enough to take the boos for missing chances. But it is not big enough to take the boos for not working hard. That I won't take from the West Ham supporters or any other person. If someone says that, I won' t turn my face away."
As he speaks, his expression hardens, and you begin to see how this slight, amiable character becomes someone else on the pitch. He is unapologetic about the aggressive side of his game, which he believes stems from the attitude he established as the second youngest of 10 boys being raised by his mother in the Lisbon suburb of Quintela. Speaking to the Independent last year, he said: "Whatever people think of me, my way to be on the pitch is my way and I'm not going to change. My way to be in football is working hard and fighting, because whatever I have got in life in these days, it's because I did work hard and fight for it.
"My dad wasn't at home all the time, so my mum looked after us. I used to lie to my mum about how I'd done in my exams and when I was going to school. She couldn't keep up because she was so busy working. She would get up at 6.30am in the morning and be back home at 7.45pm to cook for all the kids and get things ready for the next day. I gave up school when I was 15. It's something I don't want my kids to do. I would like them to have a good time at school and then good careers and university. I did some naughty stuff as a kid. I told my mother recently what we used to do. She almost had a heart attack!"
But the young Luis had a big talent – he was signed up by Sporting at the age of 11 and was soon playing in one of their junior teams. He also had the determination, or pig-headedness, observes Mike Rowbottom, not to let his opportunity go to waste. "One thing that was hard in my life was to leave school and start working. I worked in a supermarket, then I worked repairing engines on fridge-freezers. Then I was working as an electrician. So one thing that really hurt me was to get up at 5.30 in the morning and catch the bus at quarter past six. That was hard because by the end of the day, when I'd finished work, and when I'd finished training, I would get home about 10pm and I'd sit and try to watch TV and I would just go to sleep.
"My mum said to me 'It's hard, isn't it? Go back to school...' But because I took the option to start working I was not going to give up. I never give up. I always try to get a better job, better conditions. So that was the same thing in football. To move to Arsenal was a big surprise, a big gamble for me. I never had any regrets about going to Highbury because it was a big help to my career to play with people like Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp. Then I move to Southampton, it was smaller than Arsenal. Then things didn't end up well at Southampton and I ended up going lower to Fulham because they were in the Championship. But then from Fulham I start building up again, because we fought and we did all we could and we got promoted. Then we were fighting for our lives in the Premiership every single season, apart from when we had a great season and finished ninth.
"That's the way that things go. You find sometimes you have downs in life, but you can never give up. You keep fighting to get back to the top. And because I have achieved, I am not going to give up now. I'm expecting to play until I am 35, 36 so I have to keep going." Boa Morte, who has a year and a half remaining on his current contract, added that he has looked into the possibility of returning to Portugal to end his career - but admits that he has received no rock-solid offers as of yet. "At the moment nothing’s for sure," he added, "but whatever happens, West Ham United will need my agreement if they want to make a deal."
And now Boa Morte, glancing at his watch, has to get going – back home to Romford, where his wife, Sarah, is looking after their two lively young daughters. With a nine-year-old son in Lisbon, Luigi Jnr, this most committed of midfielders has plenty of motivation to maintain his career, even with the Upton Park boos ringing in his ears.