Friday, 8 November 2013

Sunlight Of Opportunity

Satan is inspecting Hell, or so a much told Romanian joke begins. As he strolls down the various alleys he arrives at a sector where the doomed are being boiled alive in vast cauldrons filled with pitch. Each nation has its own cauldron: Englishmen are boiling together, Frenchmen together, and so on. By each cauldron a horde of fiends are standing guard with tridents in their hoofs. As soon as the doomed cannot take the pain anymore and attempt to clamber out, the fiends sting them with their leisters and cast them back into the oily fires. However, Satan notices that one of the cauldrons is completely unattended. "This is outrageous!" he roars. "You will all regret this! How dare you leave a cauldron unattended, and who are the people boiling inside it?" To which the superintendent promptly replies: "Your Darkness, do not worry! These people are Romanians, and there is no need to guard them. As soon as one of them tries to get out, the others immediately pull him back in."

If something of the humour is lost in translation the sentiment is clear. Razvan Rat thinks it is best expressed in an old proverb repeated from generation to generation on the streets of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca; namely, if the sun doesn't come in through the window, the doctor will come in through the door. It is a cautionary warning about the myopic dangers of parochial insularity and is something West Ham's peripatetic defender has clearly taken to heart. As befits someone born in 1980s Piatra-Olt, a sleepy railway town and road intersection that serves as a gateway to mountain or coast in all directions, the young Razvan always had an eye on broader horizons. "When I was a kid, I dreamed of being famous, signing autographs," he laughs. "I loved football and it was all I ever saw on television." Not that you tend to get much choice when your father is a former football player and so many of your relatives are also playing the game. "My dad noticed that I had the talent and desire," says Rat. "He was a coach in the village where I had been born. That's where I started playing. And then, little by little, I became who I am now."

Who he was going to be was certainly not a goalkeeper like his father, who although never reaching the highest levels played in the Romanian Fist Division or Colegiul Divizionar A. "To be honest, I was not very interested in that," admits Rat. "He [his father] told me some things, but I didn’t listen to him attentively, because I didn’t want to become a goalkeeper." Typically, Rat's inspirations were further afield. "I was rooting for Manchester United since childhood," he says, before revealing his all-time hero to be Ryan Giggs. When he started his career with his hometown club before playing schoolboy and youth-team football for Universitatea Craiova, Constuctorul Craiova, Sporting Pitesti and Cetatea Targu Neamt he did so as a left-sided striker. In fact, Rat played locally for several years and despite never owning a 'proper football' until he was fourteen claims to have no memory of ever doing anything else. "I played football for seven years," he recalls. "Before that I was kicking various ducks, small balls ... as long as I can remember, I've always liked football."

After completing high school, Rat then graduated from the Institute of Physical Education. "Basically, I'm a professor, no joking!" he says with a smile when thinking back to those formative years. By now it was 1998, and aged 17, Rat joined Rapid Bucharest and quickly established himself at the Romanian Premier League outfit under manager Mircea Lucescu. It was he who 'reclassified' his new charge into a marauding left back. "Lucescu is the person who has had the biggest influence on my entire career as a football player," states Rat. "I think if Mister had not found me a new position on the field, if he had not employed me as a full-back, I would not have achieved what I have now." It was the start of a friendship that would last many years and cross several borders. Having made his European debut in a UEFA Cup qualifying round defeat at Armenian club Mika in August 2000, Rat then embarked on a six-month loan spell with FCM Bacau before returning to Bucharest to win the Romanian Cup in 2002 and the Romanian Premier League title the following year.

Then came the move to Ukraine in the summer of 2003- "they sent the money by bank transfer and I moved there. As simple as ABC." Rat would enjoy an illustrious spell of success with Shakhtar Donetsk, lifting a total of 15 trophies - the vast majority of them under the guidance of former mentor and compatriot Lucescu, who took charge at the club in 2004. "It was 10 years ago when I was invited," he states. "I knew little about Shakhtar. I was told that this club has a great future and that the team is striving to become well-known in Europe. So, I decided to try." Rat thinks the Ukrainian league’s level is certainly higher than that of Romanian league. "There are teams in Ukraine, who achieved good results in Europe, primarily Shakhtar," he explains. "As for the fans, it can be said that I have lost contact with the Romanian fans long ago and I viewed Shakhtar fans as my natives. Shakhtar has given me everything I have in my career and in life in general. So I never even wanted to think about another club."

Everything in life includes his Ukrainian wife of six years, Iulia, who he met in Lenin Square one sultry May evening. "I made my choice, and I was not scared that my wife was of a different nationality than me," says Rat. "The heart wants what it wants. Frankly, between us there are sometimes misunderstandings. This is because of the language of communication, mentality, but these are little things." The two married in July 2007 and in early 2011, following many failed attempts and visits to various doctors and several specialty clinics, came daughter Nicole, whose birth Rat describes as the most memorable moment of his life. He insists he has no sporting aspirations for her and believes the most important thing is that she grows up healthy and intelligent. "A smart man would succeed in any field," he says. "And to become an athlete, you have to have a talent in a particular direction: football, volleyball, water polo - it does not matter." Salubrity remains Razvan's biggest remaining wish in life. "It's always been a dream of mine – to live a healthy life," he insists, before confiding that a second child is also a priority. "I already have a girl and now I want a boy to be born to us. Can you make an order?" It is clear that a close-knit family is the thing above all else that gives Rat succour. If pushed he will admit that he thinks it impossible to have many real friends. "All the rest can be considered acquaintances, comrades," he says. "I do not know whether you will agree with me, but the most real friends are your parents. Later, when you grow up, when you have husbands, wives, children, they will also become your friends. And those are almost the only people you can trust, who will support you, no matter how life pans out."

So it was that following ten successful years in Donetsk life unexpectedly saw the 32 year-old deciding to embark on his latest adventure in east London. "It was painful that the Shakhtar team broke up after all those years," he thinks. "But this is life, I also felt the need for fresh blood. It was a very beautiful time with many unforgettable achievements." Rat had been approached by several teams, including Besiktas and Marseille, in the January transfer window and Sam Allardyce declared interest in his services a few months later. "West Ham United are a team with great history, great traditions," he states. "I have big ambitions and West Ham really wanted to see me in their ranks and fought for me. I was very happy with such a kind of trust shown towards me on the part of the club."

More importantly for Rat the move to Upton Park represented the chance to realize a life-long ambition. "I fulfilled the dream of playing in a strong league, maybe the best in the world," he states, before pointing out the decision was made in full consultation with his wife. They both agree that their daughter, at almost three years of age, will find the adaptation the easiest and all are prepared for the vagaries of the English climate. "I know that the weather is fickle in England, but I do not come here to lie on the beach," says Rat. "Basically, everything is just as I expected it to be," he says when giving his first impressions of life in the capital. "I'm fine here in England and adaptation is painless. In everyday terms, there are absolutely no problems. We live on the outskirts of London in a very nice place. You could even say that we live in the woods! Nature, fresh air and no fuss. It is also not far from the stadium. It takes me about fifteen to twenty minutes by car to reach Upton Park. Currently, I am getting used to the left-hand drive."

If the oncoming traffic is not a danger to Razvan's beloved 250,000 euros Ferrari 430, then the same cannot be said about his new team-mates. It’s a staple of most Premier League footballers to have personalised registration plates on their top-of-the-range cars, but this probably wasn’t what he envisaged when they offered to get him some new plates. "I recently bought a new car and the lads have been having some fun at my expense," explained Rat on the club's official website. "As you will know, I have been nicknamed 'Roland' because of the TV character Roland Rat, so the boys put some new number plates on the car with 'RAT 1' and 'ROLAND RAT' written on them, like the real Ratmobile! My car is red, but the Ratmobile was pink and a bit slower, but it is nice."

Suffice to say that although he has not been at Upton Park long the new summer recruit is already a popular character in the East End. "Basically, West Ham is a very friendly team," explains Rat. "All the guys were originally open and they helped me in every way to safely pass the adaption period. Of course, my knowledge of the English language helped me to quickly blend in with the team. A foreigner always finds getting used to life in a new country easier if he or she speaks the language of the local people. I already speak five languages​​: Russian, English, Spanish, Portuguese and, of course, the Romanian language. Basically, I have a good relationship with all the guys. But I communicate more with the team captain Kevin Nolan. Also, I have developed a friendly relationship with Joe Cole. He and I shared a room during the pre-season training camp."

It was the latter who was responsible for that now ubiquitous soubriquet. "When I first came here Joe Cole showed me a picture with Roland Rat and said ‘This is you’" smiles Rat. "Now most of them call me Roland. I’m getting used to it. It’s funny and the fans here are singing songs about Roland, and now everyone in Romania knows as well." Initially bemused, especially as his surname back home is pronounced Rata and means Duck!, the former Romanian Player of the Year took to watching YouTube clips of the TV puppet and has since grown to like it. "It is funny for me, it's not embarrassing," he says. "There were lots of articles about Roland Rat in Romanian papers and now everyone knows who he is."

If that is one Anglo-Romanian confusion cleared up, Rat is keen to address another; namely, that his new manager is not the raging alcoholic he is commonly held to be in Eastern Europe. "One myth around Sam Allardyce is that he chews gum because he drinks alcohol," laughs Rat. He had to explain to the media back home that Big Sam does not drink alcohol, or more precisely not on match days. "He just has such a habit," Rat told them. "In England, this is normal. Not only the coach, but many players chew gum during games. By the way, one of the coaches of the national team of Romania has the same habit, but in doing so he has never drunk alcohol."

Pitch-side masticating aside, Rat says there are other marked differences between his new boss and Lucescu, the former Romanian footballer and veteran manager of Shakhtar with whom he won the UEFA Cup 2008–09. "They are two different specialists," he states. "Their philosophy and views on football are different. Besides, characteristics of the players of Shakhtar and West Ham are markedly different. It also affects the teams’ playing style and the coaches’ requirements. The English Premier League is different from the Ukrainian Premier League. If the Donetsk club is in many components superior to all of their opponents, West Ham compete with the top teams, respectively, this influences the game."

Interestingly, Rat believes that although the physical demands of the respective leagues vary, the differences are not quite as you might expect. "In my opinion, the work loads in England are not so heavy," he insists. "In fact, perhaps, it may be that in London we work no less, but, at least, the trainings are organised so that the players don’t get tired that much. Allardyce is trying to build training so that the players work with pleasure. Even when we have a fitness training, all the exercises involve ball handling. At Shakhtar, we did more training work without the ball." In Donetsk sessions would last around 80 minutes and would often take place twice a day. Now he has more energy to pursue his other favourite activities such as tennis and ping-pong. Curiously, Rat also professes a fondness for traditional British pub pursuits, including billiards. "In particular, I love watching darts," he enthuses, before also revealing he is something of a gastronome. "My favourite is borsch, but there are some others," he says. "Basically, I'm not very picky. I can eat everything!" Otherwise he does not miss the opportunity to reiterate how proud he is of his wife. In addition to being beautiful and flirtatious, he says, she turned out to be a perfect housewife. "I only eat at home because my wife cooks very well and I like it very much," he smiles.

Although he is now rapidly establishing himself as a first choice member of the West Ham back four, Rat reveals he was never concerned by his personal slow start to the campaign. "Recently, the Irishman Joey O'Brien played in my position," he states. "Generally he is a right back, but due to the fact that last season, the main left-back had his cruciate ligaments damaged, O'Brien was moved to the opposite flank. In principle, West Ham finished the last season well, and the manager decided to leave Joey on the left flank in the opening rounds of this league edition." In truth, Rat says he relishes the competition. "That's the way it should be," he insists. "I try to do everything possible to be in the starting lineup. Our business is to train, and the final word, naturally, is for the manager." Even before the start of the season, says Rat, Allardyce told him that in the opening weeks he would not feature in the starting lineup. "This is normal. He wanted me to feel the atmosphere of the English Premier League. Still, it's a new league for me and a totally different level. The coach explained to me that I should first get a feel for the English Premier League, and then he will field me. I have played around 60 Champions League games and I understand I need to perform at that level."

It is the very reason he has no time for accusations levelled at him in the Romanian media that West Ham represents a regressive move in his career path. "In the English Premier League there are games that can be compared to the matches of the Champions League," he insists. "When you play against Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham or Manchester City, you can feel the level of the Champions League. So my move to West Ham is not a step backward, but a sideway step, so to say." The excitement he feels before each game still remains and it is the reason he knows he made the right choice to move to England. Ultimately, he states, he wants to be one of the key players of the team, to be a first-team regular. "Having moved from a team that is constantly playing in the Champions League, I must prove my high level now at West Ham so I have to put my best foot forward. I expect to play at the level of the English Premier League for more than three years."

That, of course, would take Rat beyond his current contract so exactly how much longer does he intend to play? "For as long as my knees are not worn out," he laughs, before adding he has no intention of slipping into a coach's tracksuit when his time is up. "It depends on what opportunities there will be," he muses. "I could drive a certain business, though not necessarily related to football." But then the multilingual and multifaceted Razvan has consistently marched to the discordant beat of a different drum. Most of his career earnings to date have been invested in Romania where the couple have an extensive property portfolio. On the plot of Rat's once humble home now stands a multi-million pound hotel complex complete with tennis courts, football pitches, outdoor pool (complete with football boot tiling) and a bowling alley that serves as a home and business for extended family. When he is not attending to the restaurant, conference rooms or luxury apartments, his father, Ion Dincă Rat, cruises around in the Chrysler limousine gifted by his son and the locals agree it is probably the most imposing vehicle that ever passed through Piatra Olt or Slatina. While in the family garage patiently sits the BMW sports car the Rats use during their frequent visits back home.

Down the road in Predeal there are newly built hostels for transients and the disadvantaged, while 2004 saw the construction of a new sports complex. "Razvan was the one who wanted to do something in Slatina," explains his father. "He wanted the kids to learn the secrets of football in better conditions than we had it. To get football when he was little, he had to commute 44 miles from Piatra Olt to Craiova. The sports centre offers extraordinary conditions such as hot water, ground cover, equipment, balls and coaches. Razvan sent all his money back home, money that I have used here. He had no childhood, had no joy, but he has tried to make things better for Slatina. It is beautiful." If this is what can happen when you let the sunlight of opportunity through your window maybe we all should draw back the curtains just that little bit wider.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Fluke Of Random Greatness

What makes for a prodigy is a difficult question. In some spheres it means extraordinary achievement at an inordinately early age. George Steiner had this definition in mind when he claimed that there are only three fields of human endeavor in which genuine prodigies happen: music, mathematics, and chess. The twelve-year-old Mozart wasn’t an exceptional composer for a twelve-year-old; he was just an exceptional composer. Bobby Fischer became a grandmaster at age fifteen. Not all such prodigies go on to become as great as they are expected to become; but they all accomplish a great deal, by any measure, in their art or discipline. As Frank D. Gilroy once noted, a person who's going to be famous usually drops a few clues by the time they're twenty-one.

In football we call players prodigies when they show extraordinary promise early on. It is an industry that has always snuffled hungrily after new things: new faces, new stories – and above all intact and unruined youth. Flick through the back-pages of any newspaper- national and regional- these last few days and it would be hard to avoid the name Ravel Morrison. He is the latest in a long line of callow youngsters who dominate players their own age, but who we can’t be certain will be able to take the steps necessary to achieve as brilliantly when they’re playing against the best in their profession. Their promotion has a rush of event-glamour about it. Partly this is the simple pleasure of inhaling that vital scent, gorging vicariously on great dripping vampire handfuls of downy-cheeked pep and vim, thinks Barney Ronay. But mainly it is the faint thrill – the distant, outside chance – of proximity to greatness. Being there means reading the first page of history.

There is an unforgiving Venn diagram here. Writing in the Guardian, Ronay argues that all great players are sensational when they're young; but only the tiniest fraction of sensational young players go on to become great. But still they just keep coming, doomed infantry battalions of junior jinkers, trainee poachers, apprentice pivots, bringing with them the same old jangling excitement, the sense that maybe this time, maybe this might be The One. Broadly speaking, he notes, there are two different kinds of prodigy: those who mature physically ahead of schedule and dominate their peers with brawn and pace, and those who develop very high levels of skill before they could reasonably be expected to.

By far the more common is the muscle-prodigy, a player who is a prodigy simply because he seems averagely, or even above-averagely, good at a very young age. James Milner was this kind of prodigy, performing at the age of 16 with all the grizzled poise of a 26-year-old when others of his age are moping and loafing, experimenting disastrously with basic heavy-metal guitar, and loitering quite near groups of girls hoping to appear fascinatingly aloof rather than pustulous and gaunt. Aged 26 Milner will still be performing with all the grizzled poise of a 26-year-old. This is the static prodigy phenomenon, where early gains ossify into a state of frowning and manfully borne stasis, a condition Ronay believes is known as 'Huddlestone's Mooch' in sports science circles.

Rarer, and naturally more exciting, is the skill-prodigy, the ferrety junior ballerina who comes snorting out of his elite rabbit hole ready-made; the skill-merchant for whom an entire wildly optimistic career map is instantly projected in prancing fast-forward. These are our most fragile prodigies. The skills won’t do them much good if they don’t develop the physical resilience to deal with angry strong men who wish to knock them about. Often they will simply disappear, or congeal, or stick around, gravely burdened in their spangled boots and faded No23 shirt.

Ultimately, the few who make it to adult greatness often take a slightly crooked path. Wayne Rooney was a hybrid prodigy – part muscle, part skill – who came barrelling out of obscurity clenched with adolescent resolve. The early Rooney was often portrayed as somehow semi-feral, a man-boy, a dustbin footballer, discovered complete in a carpark shopping trolley. In contrast mid-period Rooney has prevailed above all by a triumph of will and wit, of unblinking resolve rather than untameable inspiration. Perhaps, muses Ronay, the hysteria that greeted his atypically spectacular goal in the Manchester derby in February 2011 had at its core a release of pent-up prodigy anxiety, a reclutching to the maternal bosom, slot-mouthed with buried disappointment, of our puppyish infant-genius. Ryan Giggs also made it and stands now as the prodigy complete, still lithe and slippery in old age. Since he arrived in Manchester United's first team as a 17-year-old in 1991, he has regularly done things with a football that could qualify for an Arts Council grant. Among the concrete house builders of the British game he stood out like Michelangelo, observes Jim White. But it has been a circular process. Old Giggs has justified the lull of mid‑Giggs, and formed a boomeranging reinforcement of early Giggs. Perhaps the same process will occur with late Rooney.

"He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind," remarked Alex Ferguson on seeing Giggs for the first time. Yet in a country where the usual form is for footballers to look like troglodytes and run around like beheaded poultry, the elegant, economical Giggs was still assumed by many to be too flash, too handsome, not serious, recalls White. Then again, being British and gifted in the feet, you are expected to go off the rails up top. There's Bestie with his drink and women; Gazza with his ice-cream and hair extensions; and most deviant of all, the teetotal, God-bothering Glenn Hoddle. Which brings us back to Ravel Morrison, the 'troubled genius' described by Ferguson as "one of the best he's ever had at that age."

Almost on a weekly basis the former United boss would be confronted with news that the midfielder had stepped out of line in training. Worse yet, reports of his unruly behaviour away from United's Carrington training complex caused Ferguson far greater concern. He was the Lost Boy of the United academy, showing up late and exasperating staff with his inability to grasp the opportunity at his feet. Morrison's numerous run-ins with the law nearly ended up in a prison term in 2011 when he pleaded guilty to two counts of witness intimidation. Yet Ferguson allowed Morrison numerous second chances; second chances that were not permitted for far more illustrious names. Why? "There was a feeling at United that Morrison could go on to be one of the club's greatest ever players," one United source told the Mail's Sami Mokbel. "Ferguson knew what he had and he didn't want to let it go."

United's players knew it, too. Many of them would watch in awe at a prospect who had the potential to become a "monster", if he got his head right. His stunning solo goal against Tottenham on Sunday simply underlined the ability of a player that Ferguson believes can still go on to to be one of the world's greatest. Rio Ferdinand tweeted: 'Great to see Ravel Morrison playing well and focused consistently now. That goal wouldn't make his top three goals showreel by the way.' And it's true, notes Mokbel. It wouldn't.

Morrison would routinely make senior internationals look ordinary in training at United. However, despite his immense talent, he would only go on to make three League Cup appearances for the Old Trafford club. His connections with Manchester's murky underworld ultimately meant Morrison had to leave the city if he wanted to make a go of his career. Having grown up on the tough streets of Wythenshawe, south Manchester, he was involved in his fair share of trouble. Reluctantly, Ferguson sanctioned Morrison's sale to West Ham in January 2012, for an initial fee of £650,000, and a clear switch in mindset since has seen him go from the brink of prison to a potential England call-up.

Sir Alex did not want to sell, though he knew it was necessary for Morrison to have a fighting chance of salvaging his career. He told Hammers manager Sam Allardyce: "I hope you can sort him out, because if you can he’ll be a genius." In truth, United sent West Ham a giant package of trouble, wasted talent and arrogance: a dysfunctional young footballer, born to be the kind of player the English game so wantonly lacks, but unlikely to overcome a "wrong beginning", as Larkin might have put it. Ferguson, however, was not dispatching him to oblivion. Allardyce says his friend in the north told him: "A brilliant footballer. Brilliant ability. Top-class ability. Needs to get away from Manchester and start a new life."

Now 20, and in the England Under-21 squad, Morrison initially showed the same old traits; arriving late for training combined with a laissez-faire attitude during sessions. A reluctance to integrate with the rest of the squad is also understood to have rankled. "The reason he is succeeding now is because he has got rid of all those hangers-on," explained a source. He showed signs of improvement during his loan spell at Birmingham City last season, where he played 30 games for the Midlands club. Allardyce has seen the improvement with his own eyes since pre-season: a new Ravel, who is finally ready to show England what he has got. Indeed, his decision to have 'Ravel' and not 'Morrison' on the back of his West Ham shirt is a symbol of his attempts to leave his past behind him. Allardyce says: "He [Ferguson] let Ravel go for Ravel’s benefit, because he couldn’t see it happening at Man United. It was: 'Get him down there and see if you can get the best out of him, because you’ll have a great player on your hands.'"

No longer was Morrison happy to be an outsider. He made a noticeable effort to involve himself with his team-mates and captain Kevin Nolan, in particular, is helping to ensure he continues on the straight and narrow. "The Kevin Nolans and Mark Nobles probably do it better than me," the manager said. "He’s in the dressing room day to day with them and they’re guiding him along and talking to him, and saying – you’ve only just started. There’s a lot of praise going to come his way, and deservedly, particularly after that goal. We’ve been seeing it – not quite as good as that goal – all season. We’ve seen his finishing quality in pre-season. That’s why it wasn’t a great difficulty for me to take someone out with experience and put him in, because everyone was saying: 'He’s looking like he’s ready, gaffer'. He is that. As we say in the football fraternity, the penny’s dropped. It’s dropped in his lifestyle and his attitude to everybody, his timekeeping and so on. All of a sudden there’s the belief that he doesn’t want to do anything but break into our first team.

"I think a 12-month loan spell at Birmingham gives time to reflect on what exactly it takes to be a player on a week in, week out basis. It probably taught him a lot. ‘Who’s this lad? Can he stand the physical side?’ Rav’s learnt from that experience and taken it into pre-season, where he’s listened to what we’ve had to say, and what he has to do in our team shape. Basically we’re talking about players getting the ball to him in space as much as we possibly can. We saw it in pre-season against some good opposition like Sporting Lisbon and Braga. We saw it in the Capital One Cup. There was talk at the start: shall we take him out of the pressure pot position and start him in the wide position, because there’s less pressure out there? We ended up putting Mo Diamé out there and Rav in the middle. That’s what we felt his performances deserved."

On his audacious run through the Spurs defence, Morrison displayed balance, poise, confidence, speed and the ease of movement you see in all naturally gifted players, drools the Telegraph's Paul Hayward. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, who was in the stands, is bound to have recognised a quality his squad is constantly accused of lacking. A curse of the English game is that talent so often arrives with a side order of mayhem. In Morrison’s recent discovery of stability there is no guarantee that praise and exposure will work in his favour. The boy who claims never to have of heard of Gazza may pass through his whole career one indiscretion away from implosion.

But for now, West Ham should enjoy the emergence of a man who has the minerals to become one of the Premier League's greatest. Because sink or swim, prodigies seem to speak to something vital, a football-centred sense of enduing national fecundity, of great, untapped footballer-pockets still walled beneath the granite slopes, concludes Ronay. Brazil has always done this better than most, celebrating its own twig-thin ball-jugglers with an almost sacrificial zeal. In England the initial trumpeting around Theo Walcott, the Berkshire boy, seemed to portray him as a kind of wood sprite, a rural foundling, glossy-coated and wet-nosed, ready to hare out of the tree line. But really, alluring as they are, the big thing with prodigies is probably just to stop talking about them. Prodigy-talk is a vice that feeds greater vices, a substitute for rigour and systemic excellence, pinning hopes instead on the fluke of random greatness. This is just another reason to wish 'Ravel' well as he faces the usual challenge of trying to wring every drop from his considerable talent – and to remember that, in every sense, we are extremely lucky to have him.

"There is a sacred horror about everything grand," wrote Victor Hugo. "It is easy to admire mediocrity and hills; but whatever is too lofty, a genius as well as a mountain, an assembly as well as a masterpiece, seen too near, is appalling. Every summit seems an exaggeration. Climbing wearies. The steepnesses take away one's breath; we slip on the slopes, we are hurt by the sharp points which are its beauty; the foaming torrents betray the precipices, clouds hide the mountain tops; mounting is full of terror, as well as a fall. Hence, there is more dismay than admiration. People have a strange feeling of aversion to anything grand. They see abysses, they do not see sublimity; they see the monster, they do not see the prodigy."

Thursday, 10 October 2013

A Gamble Worth Taking

Home is where, noted Robert Frost, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. So it was that this afternoon Carlton Cole made his long awaited comeback for West Ham in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Charlton Athletic. A West Ham XI featuring the out-of-contract striker were beaten 4-2 as Cole - who played alongside former Fulham and Borussia Dortmund striker Mladen Petric in attack - made his first appearance at the Boleyn Ground since the end of last season. The striker parted ways with the club at the end of his contract during the summer but has joined up with his former club amid a drastic striker shortage with Andy Carroll's return date still unknown. With the international break taking precedence over the next six days, Cole was joined by a number of first team players in the West Ham side, featuring alongside Guy Demel, James Tomkins, Joe Cole, Stewart Downing, and Matt Jarvis.

Having made three appearances for the Hammers since joining them in September, it was another new recruit Petric who bagged his first goal in claret and blue on 24 minutes with an emphatic header from a Jarvis cross. Having spurned a similar chance earlier when looping an effort into the arms of Addicks 'keeper Ben Alnwick, this time the 30-year-old Croat timed his leap perfectly to nod home a left-wing centre. The lead, however, would last little more than two minutes; Jordan Cook broke free down the right, before crossing for Basile Camerling to neatly volley into the far corner. It was fitting reward for the 26-year-old French trialist who had earlier tried his luck from range, seeing his effort flash narrowly wide of Adrian's right-hand upright. The Championship side completed the turnaround five minutes before the interval, when Demel was adjudged to have impeded Pigott in the area. Pigott picked himself up to dispatch the resulting spot-kick, albeit one that just evaded the dive of Adrian.

Within 90 seconds of the restart Petric came close to restoring parity as his firmly struck free-kick curled just the wrong side of the post. Moments later and Pelly Ruddock should really have headed the Hammers level, but powered Downing's corner over the bar from six yards out. It was to prove a costly miss as the Addicks soon doubled their advantage. Camerling seized upon Cook's fine through ball and though Adrian repelled his initial effort, he was powerless to prevent Pigott from slotting home the rebound to put the visitors firmly in the ascendency.

It was all change for the hosts on the hour, with George Moncur, Kieran Sadlier and Callum Driver joining the fray, in place of Tomkins, Downing and Cole. It had the desired effect too, as Leo Chambers lofted a delightful ball into the path of Moncur, who took a touch before curling into the far corner from close range to give United a fighting chance of getting back on level terms. However the south east London side had other ideas and the win was finally sealed three minutes from time. Veteran midfielder Mark Gower, who joined Athletic on a free transfer in the summer, pounced on a ball cannoning around the Hammers box to strike home a measured volley via the inside of the post.

West Ham United first-team coach Ian Hendon declared himself satisfied with "a worthwhile exercise", even if the result left much to be desired. Despite the defeat at the Boleyn Ground, he insisted there was plenty to be pleased about, not least a whole host of senior players getting much-needed minutes. "The lads that needed minutes got minutes," Hendon told West Ham TV. "It's not always about the result but obviously we want to win games, no matter what they are. That's the competitive spirit in us as coaches, the manager and also the players. It's a disappointing result, but all in all, a good workout and some minutes on the board for some of the lads that needed them."

Chief among those was Cole, who took his first step towards earning that new contract. Sam Allardyce announced at the end of last month that the 29-year-old will be offered a short term deal once he has improved his fitness levels and, according to reports in the press, today's game was specifically arranged to "determine the future" of the popular front man. The former England international left the Hammers at the end of the previous campaign after his contract with the east London club had run out, with Cole and his employers failing to reach agreement over terms on a new deal to keep the striker in the capital. However, after Cole was then unable to find himself a new team for this season, despite interest in his services from Championship outfit Queens Park Rangers, the forward returned to West Ham in search of a short-term deal for this campaign. Like the Honourable Schoolboy, perhaps home truly is where you go when you run out of homes.

The Hammers, of course, are suffering from a striker shortage, and are in desperate need of a new option to lead the line in the absence of injured England international Andy Carroll, who has so far been unable to feature at all for the club this season due to a long-term heel injury. It is hoped Cole could provide a short-term solution to Allardyce's depleted squad and the 58-year old manager wrote in his Evening Standard column on Friday: "There is a possibility that, on any day, we might lose him because he remains a free agent but we have arranged a game for him, during the international break, and if he comes through that, we will sign him." For his part, the former England international was said to be 'under-chuffed' by previous comments attributed to the club that he was unfit, and responded by tweeting a picture of himself in the gym with the caption: 'Fat what?'

Over-weight or not, it has become alarmingly clear just why West Ham could do with a fighting-fit Carlton Cole in their ranks. Prior to last weekend's victory at Spurs, the side had managed just four goals from their opening six fixtures with lone striker Modibo Maiga yet to score. The Malian had started every game before Sunday but has proved uninspiring and, despite playing for a team lacking strikers, has only managed to finish three of his six games. On top of his goal drought, Maiga has only had three shots on target and five off target in his six games, giving him a shot accuracy of 38%. Intriguingly, last season, Carroll also managed a shot accuracy of 38%, however, he did have 63 shots and scored more than every other West Ham striker combined.

Naturally, the Irons are pining for Carroll’s return for more than just the threat that he himself poses to goal. Last season, reports Squawka's Damian Buxton, the big striker won 65% of his headed duals, compared to 44% won by Maiga. In a Sam Allardyce side the lone striker’s ability to head and hold up the ball is key to involving the midfield, and the loss of Carroll has had a knock on effect on the rest of the side. Carroll creates more chances for his teammates than both Maiga and Cole. In 24 games Carroll created 34 chances – the only one of the three to create more than one chance per game. Maiga has created five in six games so far this season. Whilst Cole may not be the answer in this respect – languishing behind on 11 chances created in 27 games last season- he can at least be counted on to provide the physical presence that has been lacking so far this season. The Hammers are still to face four of the current top five in the Premier League, as well as the current Champions, prior to Andy Carroll's likely return. In their current plight, you don't have to consult Paddy Power for the best prices on each West Ham match to know Carlton Cole could be a gamble worth taking.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Tightrope To Redemption

I'm on a tightrope, baby, nine miles high
Striding through the clouds, on my ribbon in the sky
I'm on a tightrope, one thing I've found
I don't know how to stop, and it's a
Long, long, long, long way down...
A solicitous Ravel Morrison stood in the dock at Salford magistrates' court nervously eying the tangible prospect of being sent to Strangeways prison. After falling out with his then 16 year old girlfriend, he had thrown her phone out of an open window during a heated argument at her parents' house. He was already on a 12-month referral order having been convicted (along with two other teenagers) on two counts of witness intimidation a few months earlier. Then there was an incident described as a "domestic assault" and a year before that the police caution for assaulting his own mother. "I'm sure you appreciate that behaviour like this is not acceptable," the judge gravely intoned. "You're obviously someone with a considerable future and you must at all times understand that a loss of temper, no matter what the provocation, is not acceptable." The Manchester United starlet — seen as the most exciting product of the club's famed academy in many years — risked substituting fame and fortune for an altogether bleaker future.

Morrison eventually walked free, wearing a £600 fine for criminal damage but escaping a charge of assault. For the second time in two years, his ­girlfriend refused to make a statement. In a snapshot of a schizophrenic life, just two days previously he had been starring in the final of the 2011 FA Youth Cup. Described as "a rough, glittering diamond" in the Independent's match report, Morrison's first goal of the game had been impressive; a couple of touches and a rasping shot. The second was even better – running at the defence, before picking his spot and scoring. One way or other, it seems, Ravel Morrison was born to make headlines.

Long tipped to be one of the pre-eminent English footballers of his generation, there is little doubt, in terms of ability, that he is the real deal: balance, speed, control, vision, flair, strong on either foot, an eye for a pass and a prolific scorer. One clip on YouTube encapsulates what he does best: a preposterous trick to bamboozle an opponent from the Blackburn youth team, incorporating a triple drag-back and a backheeled nutmeg. Let's not judge a player on internet footage, but this was a moment that would have brought Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to their feet. "Silks", as Rio Ferdinand calls it. He has played for England's Young Lions at under-16, under-17 and under-18 level and made his United debut, at the tender age of 17, as a substitute in a Carling Cup tie against Wolves. One FA Youth Cup tie in 2008 prompted the Times to wonder "when [we] last saw such balance and daring from an English 15-year-old". The Daily Telegraph tipped him as "a potential gem for 2014 [World Cup]."

Brought up in Wythenshawe, a sprawling, uncompromising council estate on the southern tip of Manchester, Morrison was arrested for the first time within a week of signing academy forms on his 17th birthday. A child of the streets, glowering out at the world beneath a hoodie, he had admitted two charges of intimidating a witness. He had, reported Daniel Taylor, subjected the victim of a knifepoint robbery to a two-day ordeal in an attempt to stop him giving evidence at the trial of his muggers. The court was told Morrison made threatening phone calls ("you don't know what I'm capable of") and was among three teenagers who threatened the boy on the street. The three later appeared in the victim's front garden in the early hours. They were chased away but then came back in a mob of 15 to 20 people. A brick was thrown through the window. The victim was so traumatised his family put the house up for sale and wanted to leave Manchester. There was no emotion when the judge told him he was being spared detention, recalls Taylor. However, he notes, Morrison seemed appalled when he was informed he had to pay costs, including compensation to the victim. The court was told United's No 49, described on the club's website as a "supremely gifted talent", had nothing in the bank despite receiving £3,400, after tax, on the 25th of every month, as part of the professional contract he had signed.

Goodness knows, football has had its bad boys, its rebels and its malcontents over the years, observed Sam Wallace. Some have had to fall a long way before the penny dropped and some ran out of chances. Elite sport discriminates only on grounds of talent and in football, the nation's wealthiest, most intensely competitive sport, that means people will put up with a lot. While careful not to make light of the actions of the player Old Trafford insiders had lined up as Paul Scholes’ long-term replacement, the club issued a public show of support: "We do not in any way condone Ravel's actions, but he is a very talented player with a bright future ahead of him," a spokesman said. "The right thing to do now is to support him and help him in the process of his rehabilitation." Privately, notes Taylor, Sir Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff spent many hours debating how to handle the teenager. There were numerous stories of Morrison missing training, or turning up late for matches. "There's always something going on with him," became a popular refrain. More seriously, his temperamental nature and apparent dislike of authority manifested themselves on the training ground. It is said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then the reserve-team manager, had to intervene in one incident. The teenager described as someone who acts impulsively and does not think of the consequences, a fragile personality in need of a role model.

This is not a story of a talented player with trouble attached, concluded Wallace. This had become a narrative of trouble with talent tagging along for the ride. Writing in the National, Andy Mitten states that the majority of the coaching staff at Manchester United lost patience with Morrison long before his eventual exit, persevering only on the behest of their manager. It is easy to be cynical to suggest the quality of ­mercy is linked to the rarity of the talent, but one of the traits of Sir Alex's management was his devotion to the club’s duty of care. United’s tradition of youth development, established by Sir Matt Busby, occasionally involves the application of peer pressure. Yet even the senior players were exasperated with their 18 year old. How could someone so talented, they wondered, be at fault so often? They had all made the necessary sacrifices to become a footballer and they had reached the top. The rewards were there for Morrison to see every single day, the status, respect and accoutrements of wealth. It frustrated the players even more that someone with more natural talent than most of them appeared to be throwing it away in a series of mishaps, misdemeanours and more - far more - serious issues.

There is a strong grapevine in Manchester, notes Mitten. It helps people in the city cut through the media image of footballers. Most players score quite well, ratings based on chance meetings in shops and clubs, on the words of friends and work colleagues, of little anecdotes which help piece together a profile. Not so Morrison. Almost every story - and there were many - concerned him being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. His influences appeared to be gangster chic rather than Gary Neville. The principal lesson of Neville’s career – that in ­football as in life, you get out what you put in – has never been more relevant or assiduously ignored. Morrison came across like he didn't care, not about now nor the future. Some sympathy must be extended because he's endured a difficult upbringing, reasons Mitten, but then so have many other footballers. What sets them apart is that they are prepared to learn and listen to people like Ferguson, one of the best protectors and developers of youthful talent in football. Morrison was not and Ferguson, his greatest ally, finally lost patience.

Maybe it was when he asked Rio Ferdinand on Twitter to confirm he hadn't pick-pocketed from the dressing room. Perhaps it was after he described the end-of-season awards ceremony, attended by assorted club luminaries, in excremental terms. On the back of just three first-team appearances he is said to have left Ferguson outraged by wildly 'unrealistic' wage demands when negotiating a contract renewal. In truth, the argument goes, playing at Old Trafford, with the celebrity it entails, may have simply come too soon for Morrison. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly arrived at the conclusion that the impressionable youngster would be "better out of Manchester" with all its attendant distractions. His friends, like many lads of 17 and 18, tended to "hang around on bikes, wearing hooded tops and dark clothing", reported Taylor. Morrison himself wore similar garb to one court appearance. For his sentencing, he looked what he was: a teenager in Nike trainers and a tie knotted Grange Hill-style.

For all this time Morrison lived with his grandparents, Chris and Maureen Carlway, in Denton, five miles to the east of Manchester, while his mother, Sharon Ryan, still taking an active part in his life, lived in another part of the city with her two younger boys, Rio and Zeon. Morrison would frequently contemplate moving out, complaining that he did not like being under the watch of his grandmother, although the club insisted he stayed in the company of adults. It is said that Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville both offered to take him in at different points. All of which made West Ham's subsequent decision to put the then teenager in a four-star east London hotel instead of a host family to keep him out of trouble all the more baffling, wrote the Mail's Laura Williamson at the time.

The move that eventually took Morrison to West Ham in January last year was for an initial £650,000, with the fee rising to a reputed £2.5million depending on performances. A solitary 10 minute substitute appearance in the ensuing six months, as well as hushed intimations of fractious relationships with both squad members and coaching staff, seemed to suggest they would not be seeing any extra cash in Manchester. Within a month, as predictable as the rain that falls on the streets of Whalley Range, he was back under the spotlight after being charged for using 'homophobic' language on Twitter. The England prodigy claimed he was reacting to vile racist abuse which had been directed at him. Even now it seems affording Morrison the medium of social networking is akin to prodding an angry bear with a stick and expecting it to behave, noted Bleacher Report's Alex Shaw. "With all due respect, when he first came from Manchester United he thought he was the top kid and he was going to walk straight into our team and it certainly doesn't work like that," observed West Ham assistant manager Neil McDonald when discussing those early months.. "We sent him away with the hope he would come back and use that experience."

Morrison started slowly upon joining Birmingham on loan at the start of last season, but his performance in their draw against Leicester that October, wrote Shaw, hinted at what we could expect: intelligent passing— often too clever for his own team-mates—and a willingness to stay true to aesthetics in the hurly-burly combat of the Championship. He went on to make 30 appearances in all competitions at St Andrew's, scoring three goals. "It was really good," Morrison states of the chance to grow up out of the Premier League spotlight. "I think I needed the year out and I think it went well, because I enjoyed my year at Birmingham a lot." Not that it was all plain sailing; the signs that things were initially going worryingly to form apparent in the fact manager Lee Clark considered ending his loan after three months because of an attitude problem. After the Birmingham manager held showdown talks with the midfielder, Allardyce believes the player's positive response was indicative of real personal growth. "It’s nice to see he overcame those early ­problems he suffered by not playing," said ­Big Sam. "We bought him for ­development. So first-team football hopefully will have given him enough ­experience so he can learn to put that ability into the game on a regular basis. A player is always much better when he is in the team as well."

Rather than write him off, Clark had decided to be honest with him about what was happening and his words had the desired effect, with Morrison shining for the rest of his loan spell. "Since we had that conversation, he’s been a super kid," states Clark. "I know there’s been headlines about him and things that have happened off the field. But I haven’t had a problem with him off the field. He loves his football, you see a big smile on his face when he’s playing and training. Early on in the season, when things weren’t going his way, in terms of getting in the team, his level of performance in training was affected. And he was on a little bit of a downward spiral in terms of that. So we had the watershed moment when we had the conversation and I said to him I didn’t bring him to the football club just to be a sub, or not even a sub at times. I brought him to be one of the main players. And he has knuckled down, his training has been excellent."

Morrison admits to having "missed West Ham a lot" but insists it was still good in the Championship. "It was different to the Premier League, obviously, but it was a good challenge," he said recently. "Lee Clark is a great manager and he helped me through a lot. He talked me through my rights and wrongs and he helped me through the season. I probably enjoyed the game against Millwall the most, when we came back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3. That was probably the best game because the whole team worked hard. I also scored a couple of good goals." It says much about the relation that developed between the two that Clark went on record last month to say he would love to work with Morrison again. All summer he has maintained dialogue with Allardyce and the Hammers to ensure if West Ham decide not to include Morrison in their fold, then his Blues will be at the head of the queue for his services.

Those hopes appear to be receding with the midfielder determined to force his way into the reckoning at Upton Park. "Pre-season has been good and I've enjoyed the whole trip so far," Morrison told the club's official website. "I've just enjoyed the work and the whole group has done well. Hopefully I can get an opportunity. I've just got to carry on working hard and show the manager what I can do." An impressive run of form has followed, which includes two goals against Sporting Lisbon and a string of excellent displays as he continues preparation for the coming campaign. McDonald, now working closely with the 'problem prodigy', detects a significant change in the player's attitude that could finally see him flourish at Upton Park. "He’s settled in and he’s come back a different player," he told Talksport. "I think it’s done him the world of good going to Birmingham to play some games. He can certainly do a really good job in midfield. He’s got the ability. You don’t play for Manchester United if you’re not a good player. As each game goes along he’s looking good. He has had some experience around him as well [in midfield] with Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble pulling and pushing him, as you'd expect. If we can get him on the ball in the final third then he can produce."

Now Hammers skipper Nolan is ready to continue playing father figure to keep the starlet on the straight and narrow. "He has grown up and I think he has come back with a renewed approach," he told assembled journalists a few days ago. "I am going to help him as much as I can by talking to him on and off the pitch. Hopefully he's seen the benefit of being around us all the time and going on loan and seeing what it's about. Last year he started like that, but it was all the off-field stuff and his mental attitude to the game. He let himself down with not turning up and things like that. But speaking to Lee Clark at Birmingham, he said he really worked hard on him and towards the end had him on board. That's what you've got to have with Rav. If he can get it all right, he will be a top player for years to come."

There's the rub. On the pitch, wrote Michael Calvin, great players are defined by the quality of the decisions they take, under pressure. Off it, the same principle applies. There are small signs of hope, but the choice is ­Morrison’s alone. For his sake, pray he makes the right one. He will either be one of English football’s greatest treasures, concludes Calvin, or its ­latest tragedy. In many ways it is strange to think he is still only 20. As Shaw points out, those GIFs of him displaying his precocious talent in Manchester United's reserve matches have circulated on the Internet for years now, and everyone has an opinion on him, even Barcelona. Camp Nou officials were well aware of Morrison's quality when his time at United was hurtling towards a premature conclusion back in 2011. Nothing materialised from their interest — but he has the ability, if given the chance, to be noticed again. The choice between fame and oblivion is his. He can repay the faith, defy the ­demons and become rich beyond reason. Or he can revert to type, succumb to self-destructive anger and become just ­another doomed youth. There are many who hope Ravel Morrison proves the doubters wrong, but they won't be surprised if he doesn't.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Happiness Through Acceptance

Happiness can exist only in acceptance...
Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Maybe you can go back home to your family, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to lyricism, to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of 'the artist' and the all-sufficiency of 'art' and 'beauty' and 'love,' away from all the strife and conflict to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time, back home to the escapes of Time and Memory. As Joe Cole settled back into the familiar bosom of West Ham United on an 18-month deal in January, still bright-eyed but no longer fresh of face as he returned to where it all began, a couple of stories came to mind recalls Oliver Kay.

The first, courtesy of a former team-mate, concerns a training-ground conversation about the best players in world football. Cole was gushing about Paul Gascoigne, Roberto Baggio and Zinedine Zidane and was asked what he admired most about them. "The flicks, the tricks, the skills," came the misty-eyed reply. The second is a tale from Chelsea’s training ground some years later as Cole, by now aware that his trickery on the ball would only get him so far in English football, was putting himself through a new daily routine in the gym. José Mourinho looked in. "What are you doing?" the coach asked. Building up the strength to start playing in the centre, a smiling Cole replied. Mourinho, straight-faced, could not resist the opportunity: "Back in Setubal, I have a donkey. It can run all day but it will never be a racehorse."

They are the tales that always come to mind, along with images of dragbacks and pirouettes, usually as a teenager in West Ham colours, when Kay thinks of Cole. Perhaps it is because they seem to say something about the journey on which his career has taken him, from wide-eyed ingénue at West Ham to his battle for acceptance at Chelsea, through the injuries, the ill-judged move to Liverpool, the flickering hint of a renaissance at Lille, back to misery at Anfield and finally, full circle and back to Upton Park for a new start in the most reassuring of surroundings. This is not how it was meant to be for Cole, widely identified in his youth by those at the top of the game, never mind by a captivated media or public, as the world-class No 10 that English football had been crying out for. The medal count tells us he has had a very good career (three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups for Chelsea, 56 England caps) but he cannot be developed in line with the expectations he or others had for him.

Cole’s story will be cited in some quarters as another black mark against English football, where tactical orthodoxy dictates that the game is played in straight lines, stifling the creativity of such a maverick talent — "too lightweight, chuck him on the wing", that kind of thing. The flaw in this argument is that the managers who have chucked Cole on the wing have tended to be foreigners (Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Capello) with the exception of Steve McClaren. When he has been indulged in central positions, it has been by English managers (Harry Redknapp and Glenn Roeder at West Ham, Roy Hodgson, briefly, at Liverpool) and it has rarely been successful. Does this not suggest that English football’s great missed opportunity with Cole was less in his deployment than with his development and, thereafter, with perception? Did the teenage Cole truly have all the attributes — mental, physical, technical, tactical — to be a world-class player or did he just, by English standards, have extraordinary skill on the ball? Did he, in other words, have the tricks and flicks that he admired in Zidane and Baggio but lack the vision or the game-intelligence, quite apart from the physique and hard-nosed determination, that made them into players of the highest class?

English football has a strange relationship with what a generation of players like to refer to on Twitter as #tekkers, argues Kay. Our sadness is not the searing kind but more a blend of joy and melancholy: joy at the perfection we see before us when such a talent arrives, melancholy at an awareness of how seldom we are sufficiently blessed to encounter anything of its kind. The flawless object throws into perspective the mediocrity that surrounds it. We are reminded of the way we would wish things always to be and of how incomplete our national game remains. It is why there is distrust at times, but there is also, at times, a misplaced awe. After Cole’s arrival at Liverpool in 2010, Steven Gerrard drooled about the tricks that his new team-mate could perform, saying that "Lionel Messi can do some amazing things, but anything he can do, Joe can do as well, if not better". It comes down to more than skills on the ball. The idea that Cole could have been English football’s Zidane or Andrés Iniesta seems a little misplaced. Zidane and Iniesta are two of the most intelligent, artistic footballers European football has seen — more intelligent and more artistic than Gascoigne and the like. Whether it is an issue of nature or nurture or something of both, Cole did not seem to develop, whether in his youth or his later career, the all-round game that would have made him the player that English football wanted him to be. Nobody can particularly be blamed for that.

Indeed, thinks Daniel Taylor, perhaps we were all a little bit guilty of expecting too much. Maybe we were too seduced by the hype. The first time he came across Cole was back in those days when everybody had heard of him but very few had actually seen him play. Cole, he explains, was part of a youth team at West Ham that had brought in journalists to advise on media training and, though it's going back a few years, a couple of things still stand out. One was that, out of everyone, he seemed the most eager to understand the mechanics of the newspaper industry. One player, no older than 16 or 17, got himself into a hole during the mocked-up interviews, questioning whether Ian Wright, 34 at the time, was past it – "he can't have long, can he?" – and cheerfully debating the possibility of taking his place until another boy let him know, with an expertly administered dead leg, that he had better stop talking. Cole was far more savvy. He had, he explained, already been taking advice, anticipating all the attention coming his way.

Secondly, the West Ham academy at the time, run by Tony Carr, was one of the best in English football, if not the very best and it would be hard to find too many clubs that developed players as astute as Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe in the same era. Yet it was Cole, notes Taylor, who all the other players looked up to. By that stage he had already scored seven times in an England youth international against Spain. Ferdinand tells the story of going to see Cole, then 13, in a schoolboys' game in Southend. "He flicked the ball over his head, then over another player, ran round the other side and collected it. The only time I'd seen anyone do that was Ossie Ardíles in Escape to Victory." Except Ardíles, one imagines, didn't do it in one take. At 15, Cole was invited to train with West Ham's first team. "He was the best player out there," Ferdinand confirms. John Moncur nicknamed him "the Conjuror". For Cole, by far the most hyped of West Ham's Bright Young Things recalls Jacob Steinberg, the limelight was blinding. A year before he had even made his professional debut, Redknapp was writing about him in his programme notes, dismissing reports linking a 16-year-old boy with Manchester United, and on his 17th birthday Cole signed his first professional contract on the pitch at Upton Park before a game against Chelsea. The date was 8 November 1998. "You can tell your grandchildren you were here when Joe Cole signed," said the pitch announcer, Jeremy Nicholas. No pressure, kid.

The other youngsters were all appreciated but none were as adored as much as Cole. He was not Joe Cole, he was Joey Cole. He made his debut in January the following year, coming off the bench in the third round of the FA Cup against Swansea City and a week later he made his first appearance in the league in a 4-1 defeat against United at Old Trafford, where he grabbed the attention with his fearlessness, showing off the flicks and tricks that define him. By now he was impossible to ignore, writes Steinberg, and in May of that year he helped West Ham win the FA Youth Cup. In a hopeless mismatch Coventry City were beaten 9-0 over two legs in the final, West Ham winning the second leg 6-0 at a packed Upton Park. By the time he had turned 21, Cole had played for England eight times and was about to be named captain of his club. Frank Lampard, to put it into context, was still waiting for his first cap at that age. Carrick had two.

It's funny how it works out sometimes, thinks Taylor. By now, you might have seen the archived footage that has found its way on to the internet, from 1996, of a question-and-answer session with West Ham supporters when Redknapp was manager. It's glorious stuff, with one gentleman trying to pin down Harry about how on earth he could justify selling a young lad by the name of Scott Canham – "for peanuts" – when Lampard was in the team and "not good enough". Canham's story after West Ham is an undistinguished journey via Brentford, Leyton Orient, Chesham, Woking, Farnborough and a few others. But nobody in the audience spoke up for the young Lampard when Redknapp was being accused of picking him for no other reason than being his uncle. The camera cuts to where Lampard is sitting and it's all a bit awkward, to say the least. He's smiling, but it's a default smile, the kind of smile when someone has just had bad news and is trying to tell everyone it's OK.

As it turned out, Lampard didn't do too badly, still with an outstanding chance of playing in the next World Cup even though he will turn 36 during the tournament. Carrick, another player who could polarise opinion among the West Ham crowd, has similar aspirations, playing with the control and authority for Manchester United that makes it difficult to understand why Roy Hodgson did not try harder to involve him in Euro 2012. Cole, meanwhile, has found himself in decline for longer than he probably wants to remember. As much as he had the crowd on their feet when the ball was at his, there was also a feeling that a lack of football intelligence and tactical discipline meant he did not make the most of his talent at West Ham. Despite Redknapp playing Cole behind two strikers, his end-product often left much to be desired; there were not enough assists and he only scored 13 goals in his five years with the club. Cole ended up playing some of the best football of his career when Roeder made him West Ham's captain in December 2002 and moved him to a deeper midfield role. The player flourished but, despite his manic efforts, West Ham still went down at the end of that season, unable to reel in Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers side.

So would Cole have done better had he been raised by Spain, as the popular argument goes? Possibly, thinks Kay, but it is a hypothesis that ignores the reality that, in Spain, his technical abilities would seem less exceptional, something to work around rather than something that would make him a superstar. Cole has had some great moments in his career — a personal Kay favourite is an Iniesta-like pass that set up Didier Drogba for a goal against Valencia in the Champions League in 2007 — and he has a handsome medal collection. What he has not had is a true sense of belonging in any team — since leaving West Ham as a 21-year-old, in 2003, he has only twice started more than half of his team’s league matches in a season — and therefore the opportunity to make a sustained impression.

Kay and Taylor were both at Roots Hall on the night that Cole ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in an FA Cup third-round replay against Southend United four years ago. He has never been anything like the same player since — his performances in a turbulent 2½ years at Liverpool, during which he made only nine Barclays Premier League starts, were sad to watch — but even before that injury there was a sense, at the age of 27, that his career had already come to a crossroads. He also lost his place in the England set-up and has not played for his country since the 2010 World Cup finals, even if he believes he still has plenty to offer club and country. "I’ve had a great career but by no means am I finished," Cole insists. "There will always be the England thing in the back of my mind because I played 56 times for my country. I haven’t played since the World Cup in 2010, so something is missing there. I still want to be part of that, but you can’t talk yourself into England squads, you’ve got to perform." Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, beat Redknapp, his Queens Park Rangers counterpart, to Cole’s signature in January and believes the midfielder can force his way into Roy Hodgson’s plans. "If he can recapture his old form and plays on a regular basis for us, Joe is bound to get a bit of interest from Roy," he said at the time. "But his main focus will be making sure he plays for West Ham on a regular basis and producing the form we know he can."

If Cole's career went down a cul-de-sac then the sincere hope is that a return to Upton Park will eventually help him rediscover the spark that made him such a joy to watch in his teenage years. For we depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them, noted de Botton in his study on how human needs and desires manifest their ideals in our environs. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. As Cole explained to Graham Moody: "It’s very inspiring being back and, at the moment, it all feels like a dream, seeing the same old faces and the same places. It’s different but it’s the same. I can picture myself when I was young sitting in the same places and playing on the same pitches. It’s amazing. I will be inspired here and I can feel how I felt as a youngster again. I play my best football when I’m happy. The 18 months at Liverpool were difficult because I didn’t play as much as I would like. I need to play consistently, and if I’m playing consistently and I’m happy I’m sure I will be the same player I was."

Cole's second coming as a Hammer began encouragingly, delivering the crosses for both goals against Manchester United and playing with the sureness of touch, football intelligence and penetration that wasn't seen enough at Liverpool, bar his time on loan at Lille. West Ham certainly feels like a snug fit thinks Taylor, and it would be nice, too, to trust in Allardyce's famous restorative powers; even if we have reached the point in Cole's career when we probably just have to accept he may never be the player English football wanted him to be. Back where it all began, where they have always thought of him as one of their own, he should benefit from knowing he has the club's trust and affection. This time, however, the expectations have to be considerably lower. Moving back to London may have therapeutic effects but, for all the nostalgic qualities about returning to his first club, the bottom line is Cole would not be back in claret and blue if his career had turned out as everybody thought.

As harsh as it sounds, it boils down to this: When Joe Cole came on the market in January the Premier League's then 11th-placed club gazumped the bottom one, QPR, while the "serious clubs" kept out of it. Not only that, it needed Liverpool to write off a small fortune in the process. You know things haven't been going well when a club would rather give you a £3m payoff than wait any longer on the off-chance it might work out. Of those nine league games Cole actually started for Liverpool, he was sent off in the first and played the full 90 minutes in only three. The last time he started and finished a Premier League match prior to his Upton Park return was two years to the day of his second debut as a West Ham player. The other two occasions go back to September 2010. Cole, earning £92,000 a week, didn't get so much as player of the month. Or even a single man of the match. They paid him off in the end because the alternative was stumping up another £7m in wages over the remainder of his contract. However it is dressed up, it represents an astoundingly bad piece of business.

Perhaps we will always be left wondering why he never fully realised all that rare potential. Maybe he will never properly bridge the gap between a player who can dictate football matches rather than one who merely decorates them, laments Taylor. Yet he is plainly taking the business of reinventing himself seriously and it is enough for now to see him reminding us all why so many people care in the first place. More than anything, it would feel like a terrible waste if, at 31, we have to talk about his gifts in the past tense. Even if he will never be the player English football wanted him to be, suggests Kay, it would just be nice for him to remind himself, as well as the rest of us, of the player he was — that he is a thoroughbred, with some running left in him, rather than a donkey ready to be out to pasture.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Lancashire’s Loss, London’s Gain

"One thing about London is that when you step out into the night, it swallows you..."
It is now well over two and a half years since Sam Allardyce’s chicken-brained sacking by Blackburn. "I didn’t know it was quite that long," Sam smiles, raising an ironic glass. "To Venky’s!" He’s laughing now — and so are West Ham. Lancashire’s loss, London’s gain. Afterall, asked Charlotte Bronte, who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and for ever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity? Not Big Sam, who has resurrected his club while enjoying a rebirth as Metropolitan Man. Now happily settled in Canary Wharf and looking forward to building on two successful seasons in the Hammers hot seat, the manager is relishing what promises to be an exciting and challenging 2013/14 campaign; his tenth as a Barclays Premier League boss following spells with Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United and Rovers prior to joining the Hammers in July 2011. "It has been a really good couple of years for me, not just from a football point of view, but from the fact that we're enjoying our time living in Canary Wharf," Allardyce told the official club site today. "The big city has been great to explore and it takes the pressure off when you want to get out and get away from it all, you've got plenty to do and plenty to see."

The decision to move had to be right for Lynn, his wife, whose mother — after living with the Allardyces for 30 years — died just before the West Ham job came up. Happily the switch felt right, personally and professionally, from the start. Sam and Lynn love West End shows and East End life. Near the gastropub where Allardyce frequently holds court over lunch is their 40th-floor apartment, with amazing views. The perfect vantage point to watch those marbled clouds go scudding by in the many-steepled London sky. "The windows are ceiling to floor," he says, "and now when we go back to the house in Bolton, we have to put on all the lights. ‘Dingy, innit?’ we say." In a recent typically meandering lunch-fuelled interview with Jonathan Northcroft, Sam digresses on the benefits of natural light (he had a Bolton dressing room built with roof and pitched windows). He discusses algorithms in player-analysis software, the science behind improving athletes’ sleep. "All that stuff British Cycling gets praised for — microscopic detail, marginal gains — Sam was doing it 10 years ago," a former assistant told Northcroft. Allardyce has been an innovator (he was the first coach to use 4-2-3-1 in the Premier League). And he’s been a success — improving the league position of every club managed, even his supposed failure, Newcastle.

Yet critics don’t want to hear that and they don’t want to hear Allardyce, as can be his wont, expressing confidence in his abilities. "If Mourinho says it, you all speak about it in the highest esteem. It’s him talking about himself again and isn’t he good? But if a Midlander talks about it, with his Midlands accent that he’s nearly lost, he gets berated," muses Allardyce. He still harbours dreams of England, "though you can see Roy’s going to be there quite a while. But the desire to win, the desire to do as well as I possibly can in my career, is never relinquished." The Big Sam dichotomy — the man who thinks outside the box yet has the old values of English management running through his core — is something not everyone gets. But West Ham, promoted and made a competitive Premier League unit within 18 months of his arrival, feel the benefits. "Obviously with the football side going well as well, it has been a really good two years," he says with uncharacteristic understatement. "And hopefully it will be more successful, building up to getting in that new Olympic Stadium. I think the fans will all be itching to get the season started again. When they see everybody coming back for pre-season, everyone starts looking forward to the start of the season. With great expectation, every club will be expected do better than they did last season."

While the pressure-filled Barclays Premier League is still a fortnight away, Big Sam has been working tirelessly with the Board and his recruitment staff all summer, identifying and attempting to sign transfer targets. Four new players have already joined - Andy Carroll, Razvan Rat, Adrian and Danny Whitehead - while the Club have made no secret of their desire to bring in one more forward. Only today a signing the club were increasingly confident they had landed slipped agonizingly through the net. Yet, notes Northcroft, if there’s one area where Allardyce’s blend of originality and commonsense come together, it’s recruitment. Like Harry Redknapp, he’s a great assembler of squads. He keeps the right players (Mark Noble, Winston Reid); buys "pros" in key areas (Kevin Nolan, James Collins, Matt Jarvis); spots potential (Mohamed Diame, Mobido Maiga); and finds value in players others don’t even consider. Ricardo Vaz Te cost £500,000 from Barnsley and scored the £50m playoff final goal that returned West Ham to the Premier League. Joey O’Brien hadn’t played for Bolton in almost three years when he was released and then snapped up by Sam.

Moneyball? He knew all about that in 2001 when Mike Forde, his former performance director, went to America to investigate Billy Beane. "We started doing it: physical, psychological, technical and tactical; boxes players had to tick," explains Allardyce. "You work with what I call the ghosts of football, the scouts and analysts nobody sees. I don’t want to know what a player can’t do. What can he do? I’ll find other players for the other stuff. The biggest problem any manager has is recruitment. Half the time in this job you’re fighting to make sure you don’t sign the wrong players. Because everybody’s giving you players, all the time, every day of the week, in this ferocious transfer world."

It was, he states, a transfer that made him realise he’d made a good decision to work for David Sullivan and David Gold at Upton Park. "Steve [Bruce] is my best mate and he said, ‘You’ll have no problems’. They’re West Ham fans who want the same as me — to do well," says Allardyce. "The first thing was to bring a winning culture back to the club. Nolan was the central plank. We talked about Kevin and two days later it was done. Kev’s walking through the door and I’m like that [jaw hitting the floor]. Generally where I’ve been it’s been weeks and months [to complete signings], people putting up obstacles. Some clubs have transfer committees! With them [Sullivan and Gold] it was bosh, get in, deal done."

He needed his owners’ help in the previous transfer window when injuries had robbed Allardyce of seven leading players including Andy Carroll, out until the February and Diame who would return quicker than expected. Then, as now, Allardyce was looking "at players in Europe coming towards the end of their contracts and at loans" and to keep his midfield dynamo. "He won’t go anywhere. He likes it here," Allardyce says of Diame. "[His improvement] is down to the challenge he’s taken on. The size of a club demands a certain size of performance and we’re a sell-out club, with 35,000 people, great tradition. He’s responded. We changed his role [to attacking midfielder]. The ability he has to break through the opposition’s midfield is rare. Other players have to pass their way through. He has similar capabilities to Yaya Toure though, unbelievably, Manchester City don’t seem to be using those capabilities at the moment. That’s why West Ham fans love him — those long, penetrating, weavey runs. He gets into the positions so often that if we can work on the finishing and final pass we could be talking about a really top player."

That said, the manager is delighted that he has not had to overhaul his squad to the same extent that he did in the summers of 2011 and 2012. "It has been one of the quietest pre-seasons I've had for about eight years I'm glad to say," smiles Allardyce. "We have done some good business, obviously the Andy deal was the first one. We've got a new goalkeeper, Adrian, from Real Betis, who seems to be settling in very well. We've got Razvan Rat from a defensive point of view, so we're probably looking at securing one more player within the budget we've got available this summer. And hopefully that will make us a little bit better than last year. From our point of view, we have to look at everybody else's spending throughout the summer up until the deadline. Then we'll have a better idea of if the Premier League is going to be any stronger from last season and that's the challenge you have to face up to."

It is important, thinks Sam, that his squad make the same strong start that stood them so well last term. With home games against Cardiff and Stoke City and away matches at Newcastle United, Southampton and Hull City to begin, the manager believes the Hammers can put points on the board again in August and September. The caveat, he acknowledges, is an improvement on an away record that saw them win just three times in 19 games on the road last term. "Yes, they are [winnable games]. Our home form was the key to our success and our away form, in the end, wasn't very good, considering that when we got promoted the year before our away form was better than our home form. So it was quite strange from that point of view. The fixtures have been reasonably kind but there are no easy games in the Premier League as everybody knows. A good start for us like last season, we got 14 points out of the first eight games, is something that we need to target yet again if we want to be as good as we were last year. With that group of fixtures, not that I'm saying that they're easy, but if you started off with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City in the first eight, that would be difficult. But we haven't got that to begin with and we need that strong start yet again."

And West Ham’s potential? "I’d like to win a cup," admits Allardyce. "I’ve been in two semis and the Carling Cup final. That, for this club, is the target: sustain itself in the Premier League and, as the squad grows, start thinking about [winning cups]." A bigger prize lies beyond. Allardyce and his players have seen drawings of the football arena with retractable seats for 54,000-60,000 fans that West Ham intend at the Olympic stadium. "Awesome," Allardyce says. "We cannot let it become a white elephant. And the only way to fill it is by being an established Premier League football club by the time we get there. It would give the chance to create a new history for West Ham United, to be mega in Europe. It would demand more from the manager and players and that’s what the club has to build towards now. I’d love to be there but that’s a long time in the future, isn’t it?"

Which brings us back to that baffling Blackburn exit that has taught Allardyce not to look too far ahead. His contract with West Ham was due to expire this summer and it is true that renewal was wholly dependent on the club's survival. "It was all about being safe," he says. "But me and the Davids had always been talking about next season, as well as the transfer window; sort of talking as if the contract’s wasn't up. Ten years ago I’d have been panicking, now I don’t. I knew we needed to be safe or virtually safe ... and at that stage we would get down to negotiation." Allardyce natters about "unbelievable" experiences, as a young Bolton centre-half, of playing in a Fulham side featuring Bobby Moore. He might never be "West Ham enough" for ultra-diehards but his mix of the down-to-earth and aspirational chimes with the club.

"West Ham is like Newcastle," he feels. "The fans always turn out. They might not always be patient but they’ll always be there. And contrary to what people have said to me about 'the West Ham way', they want to win. They want passionate, committed players who give their best. They want entertaining football but most of all they want to win and at the end of the day you can’t hide behind a certain way of playing [to justify] failure." If Paris is a woman then London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub, noted Kerouac's Lonesome Traveler. With that Metropolitan Man sips his wine of choice (Saint Emilion: involved in a wine business run by Ryan Nelsen, Sam knows his stuff) and tucks into his food. It’s gourmet, observes Northcroft, but still pie and mash.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Paean To Experience

"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield..."

They say you’re only as old as you feel. Except in football, it seems, where you’re perceived to be on your last legs at about 30 and pensioned off a few years later. Being young is beautiful and experience can often be undervalued. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United look to offer one-year contracts for players in their early thirties, other clubs try to recruit only professionals between 23 and 28, while some teams revel in picking up what are seen to be the scraps and showing that there is life in the old dog yet. "People write off players too soon," David Sullivan, the West Ham United co-owner, recently told Times journalist Gary Jacobs. "I wouldn’t write off players at all. That is our strategy and generally it works. Lots of players go on a lot longer than you think."

Sullivan should know. His teams have been built on a mixture of cheaper, experienced players, free transfers, others who have lost their way and the odd expensive recruit. This summer, he committed £15.5 million on Andy Carroll and the rest of the signings are likely to amount to a modest sum. He argues that knowing which players are entering the final year of their contracts or are free agents is valuable. It was a similar picture at Upton Park a year ago and West Ham finished in tenth place; Queens Park Rangers, heavy spenders on wages, were relegated. Sullivan has largely been constrained by the financial positions that he inherited at Birmingham City and West Ham, but chances are he might not to do too much differently if he was in a position to spend more.

He’s not alone. The Sam Allardyce-helmed Bolton Wanderers upset the odds in the top flight with a similar policy more than a decade ago, Sunderland looked to take advantage of Manchester United cast-offs recently - although they overspent in fees - while QPR tried but got it badly wrong because they overpaid in wages and that distorted the type player they attracted and, as a consequence, the squad. Sullivan looks at fact, not opinion, and relies heavily on a player’s statistics. Last year he signed Jussi Jääskeläinen, then 37, who had lost his place at Bolton. "His form improved," Sullivan said. "If you buy a 30-year-old compared to a 21-year-old for a lot less money, you can get the same ability on the field. We are interested in the ability we have on the field for this season, not for two or three years’ time. We see the player they are rather than what they might be. Because of the age, shorter contract and no-resale value, the player is cheaper."

Jääskeläinen has since earned a year-long extension to his contract at West Ham after so successfully filling the boots of England international Robert Green. The Finland international had achieved 55 international caps and 474 league appearances for Bolton Wanderers, and Allardyce insists he had no doubts about the value of signing his reliable number one. "When I signed him my fear was not about his ability, as I knew he had ability after working with him at Bolton," he admits. "But I wasn’t sure if he still had the drive and determination to put that back into this league again. He’d been bombed out by Owen Coyle and not selected for most of that season. So that was my fear, was he past his best? But since getting himself back into the groove he’s been an excellent acquisition for us." You just have to look at him, thinks Allardyce. "His wife Tess says he doesn’t look 38 – especially when he has a shave. He’s a young 38. He’s never suffered many injuries or operations and that is always a really good sign. The goalkeeper and goalscorer are the two biggest positions to fill. Having one at one end scoring the goals and the person at the other end saving them are the most important and he did a great job this season."

Rio Ferdinand, 34, is expected to sign a new deal at Manchester United soon and players such as Teddy Sheringham and Ryan Giggs have defied age, notes Jacobs. Ruud van Nistelrooy was 30 when he scored 25 goals to help Real Madrid to the title in 2007. AC Milan lifted the 2007 Champions League with an average age of 30.2. As Sullivan says, the best youngsters do not necessarily become the best players. The top clubs can all cite expensive prodigies who failed to make the grade. Arsenal signed Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Upson at high cost, Tottenham recruited John Bostock - they released him this summer - and Fabian Delph and Connor Wickham have struggled to make an impact. "There is no guarantee that youngsters will come good," Sullivan said. "We have seen some clubs buy the best crop of youngsters believing that they will be able to sell them on and it doesn’t work out. What Southampton have done to bring through players is incredible."

In Allardyce, Sullivan has a manager who has never shied away from fielding older and/or disenfranchised players. When at Bolton he pioneered an approach that was at once novel and ingenious. He went to football’s equivalent of Oxfam and searched for designer labels cast off by the well-off. Unwanted, they didn’t have a price tag but they came with baggage. Fredi Bobic, Youri Djorkaeff, Bruno N’Gotty, Okocha, Emerson Thome, Ivan Campo, Ibrahim Ba and Fernando Hierro were among those persuaded by Allardyce to enjoy the twilight of their careers in wintry Lancashire. "The financial devastation suffered by that club meant that the players who were willing to join us were mostly players discarded by their previous club," explains Allardyce. "They were written off because their attitude wasn’t right, their motivation had gone, they were disruptive, the coach couldn’t work with them, or some other reason. Our job was to assess whether that player wanted to rediscover his old self."

An assiduous accumulator of football's dispossessed, the key tools of Allardyce's trade have always been his honesty and unbridled force of personality. Invariably the difficulty that he confronts is the motivation of these players. How, for example, could a man perform for Bolton after spending most of his career at Real Madrid? "It wasn't just Campo and Hierro," recalls Allardyce. "Take Stylianos Giannakopoulos, who came from Olympiakos having won seven Greek championships on the trot. This sounds really bad on the club, but the reality is that it is not quite big enough to demand the best out of these players. So I had to drag it out of them. Because of what they had achieved elsewhere, we knew they were capable of taking Bolton to where it hadn't been. My job was to make sure they did that and it was a difficult job. But my strength is my DNA; with Sam Allardyce, what you see is what you get. My desire to be successful is very strong and I am good at infecting others and inspiring them to strive for the same thing."

"He believes that whatever age a player is, he can still improve him if they have the right attitude and come to perform rather than just for a payday," Sullivan added. "He sits them down, looks them in the eye and sees if they have fire in their belly." As was the case with newly recruited Romania captain Razvan Rat; picked up on a free transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk and signing a three-year deal worth around £35,000. The 31-year-old left-back spent ten years with the Ukrainian champions and enjoyed great success, winning a total of 12 trophies during his time at the club. "I am hugely happy that we have got a player of his experience and his character," said Allardyce of the 88-capped Rat. "He has been playing Champions League football this year and at the highest level for many years. Shakhtar had offered him a very good contract, but his ambition was to come and try his abilities and skills in England. When you hear somebody speak so positively about that, then you know they have got the mental character that is needed to do well in this division."

Rat will slot into a defence that already features 32-year-old Ivorian Guy Demel and glabrous Welshman James Collins, who joins the "30 club" next month; the age that supposedly promises the onset of loneliness, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm and even thinner hair. Collins, a bargain bin victim of Paul Lambert's youthful revolution at Aston Villa, recovered from costly early season blunders against Swansea and Reading to produce his best ever football in the autumn of his career. It included arguably the greatest individual performance of any Hammers player last season in a man-of-the-match display to mark Luis Suarez out of the game against Liverpool in April. "I feel like I am producing the best form of my career," agrees Collins. "I had a couple of mistakes which I needed to get out of my game. But I have put in some good performances and I was delighted with how I played. I’m happy with my form and hopefully it can continue." In truth, Collins has slotted in so successfully it is like he has never been away; although if it had been down to him he would never have left the club in the first place. "As soon as I knew the interest was there from West Ham I couldn't wait to get down and sign," he admits. "I had a great affinity with the club and the fans when I was here the first time and I enjoyed my time here so much last time that it wasn't a hard decision to make, to be honest. I've come back and I'm a much better player this time around so I couldn't wait to get cracking and show the fans that I am a better player and can put in the performances on the pitch."

The similarly marginalized Demel was discarded by Hamburg at the expiry of his contract having clocked up over 150 Bundesliga appearances. Originally signing a two-year deal with West Ham in August 2011, an injury-hit start to his Upton Park career meant he didn't actually make his debut until the November of that year. Yet by the time West Ham's Premier League return reached it's successful conclusion the following season, the ever improving Demel had featured in 31 of the 38 games and impressed enough to extend his contract until 2015. "I have some friends here already and London is a great city. I am very happy to be here," smiles Demel. "I had 10 years in Germany and I won the title. But it was time for a change and to show what I can do in another country. I am looking forward to the future and I would like to go to the new stadium with West Ham. Something big is happening here and I want to be part of an exciting time in the club's history. Last year was kind of difficult because when I signed, I had pre-season, and then unfortunately I got injured really quickly and it was hard to come back afterwards. But right now I feel good. I had a pre-season, we worked hard and I have to thank the medical staff for the job they have done with me. I feel good and I'm quite happy with what I'm doing right now, but I know that I can do even more."

Retooled, repurposed, remotivated. Whether at Bolton or now West Ham the story of Allardyce's tarnished acquisitions have a familiar refrain. When prodigal son Joe Cole pitched up in January he received an inevitable hero's welcome although it was hard to disguise the sense of foreboding. A miserable spell at Liverpool – which included a year on loan at Lille – had seen the Merseysiders so desperate to get the 31-year-old off their wage bill that they were willing to write off the rest of his contract. He had looked out of shape and out of puff and had featured only 10 times. As Jacob Steinberg noted at the time, the busted flush look of a boy wonder who had become yesterday's man. While six months is too short a time to judge the Allardyce effect, the early indications seem positive. An apparently impressive goal-laden pre-season has seen Cole enthusing about "being in the best shape of my life." Speaking after the recent 3-0 friendly win against Boreham Wood, he was talking animatedly about taking West Ham to Wembley and challenging for silverware. In the aftermath of yesterday's latest victory on the club's German tour Cole spoke of catching Roy Hodgson's eye, despite the fact the last of his 56 England caps came in the 4-1 World Cup defeat to Germany in South Africa three years ago. "The main thing for me is to get in the West Ham team, play as many games as I can, play well and we'll see what happens from there," he said. "But I think any Englishman will be looking at the World Cup. It's the pinnacle of a career to go to a World Cup and play for your country."

Substitute one aging, increasingly out-of-favour but once revered former midfield star for another and it wouldn't be hard to imagine those same quotes coming out of the mouth of Scott Parker should he make a return this summer. As recent newspaper reports continue to hint at West Ham interest in the player, Sullivan freely admits he "would love to have him back if there is room on the wage bill". The midfielder is one of a number of players that Spurs deem surplus to requirements but the biggest hitch remains his current £70,000-a-week. At 32 years of age but still motivated by lingering international ambitions it is easy to see why Allardyce and Sullivan would be interested. Likewise with 31-year-old Peter Odemwingie, reports the Times, after his proposed moves to Crystal Palace and Fulham fell through. It is thought that a bid in the region of £1.5 million could be enough to tempt West Brom into letting the want-a-way striker leave after relations soured between the player and club following the January transfer window fiasco. When questioned about the controversial Nigerian, Allardyce would only concede that he is aware of the player's availabilty but remains otherwise non-committal.

Whatever the truth of these latest rumours- and swathes of Hammers support have expressed concern- solace can be taken in the fact that nobody in the game gets a tune out of an old fiddle quite like Big Sam. Far better, he cajoles, to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. It is no secret, concludes Jacobs, that Allardyce would instinctively want the Hammers to replicate the model of his successful eight-year Bolton reign of paying high wages to entice big-name stars. Although the newly implemented UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations brings tighter restrictions in that regard, the West Ham boss knows that the club, as it stands, still cannot match the transfer budgets and salary offers of the elite to sign top talent in their prime - with the Andy Carroll deal proving a notable exception - but remains more convinced than ever that they can still take advantage in the seasoned players' market.

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