Andrew Tuft’s Monday Column – Claret and blues at Upton Park

Over 1000 miles from Reykjavik, the effects of the Icelandic banking crises are being felt severely in East London. As the world battles recession and economic gloom, West Ham’s problems have grown to include a relegation fight they cannot afford to lose. But the financial concerns that have seen players sold without adequate replacements coming in have also left the Hammers in serious trouble on the pitch.

Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Birmingham City made it one win in five for West Ham, and even that victory over Burnley was marred by conceding three goals at home to the team with the worst away record in the Premier League. Sitting 18th in the table, if West Ham’s owners CB Holdings where looking to the Londoners to provide some relief in these difficult times, they will have been sorely disappointed by recent goings-on. Poor results and performances to match, the sad retirement of Dean Ashton and now doubts over the proposed takeover from David Gold and David Sullivan have threatened to ruin the festive season at the Boleyn Ground.

The Daily Telegraph reported last week that Gold and Sullivan were turning their attention to Charlton Athletic, while it was confirmed on Friday that Ashton had lost his struggle against injury. A bad few days was compounded with the trip to St. Andrews, where a solitary Lee Bowyer goal condemned West Ham to defeat. With Wolves unexpectedly winning at White Hart Lane, it became essential the Hammers did not lose and Kieron Dyer nearly gave Gianfranco Zola’s side a point, but the West Ham supporter and former player Bowyer consigned the visitors to defeat, and cranked up the pressure on the little Italian.

Zola should be applauded for his football principles – West Ham are often one of the more pleasing to watch sides in the Premier League. But such style requires not only a solid spine but also an experienced manager to guide his players through difficult spells and keep confidence levels high, because without confidence it is much harder to play the kind of football Zola wants. Young players like James Tomkins, Jack Collison, Zavon Hines and Junior Stanlislas have been thrown into the deep end of top-flight football through a combination of injuries and little squad depth, and while they show promise, their inexperience is costing West Ham. Much like their manager, however, the only way to get experience is to go through the tough times, but whether the Hammers come out of them still in the Premier League or not remains to be seen.

The Italian’s hands have been tied by the club’s parlous financial position. James Collins swapped one claret and blue shirt for another in August by joining Aston Villa, and was replaced by a 23-year-old Portuguese defender with no Premier League experience – Manuel da Costa. Formerly of Fiorentina, da Costa may one day be a very good player, but as West Ham wait for him to adjust to Premier League football, they have a hole in their defence next to Matthew Upson. Daniel Gabbidon’s return to fitness has eased the pressure, but with Upson out with a hamstring problem, it is left to the injury-prone Welshman and 20-year-old Tomkins to combat some of the best strikers in world football.

The deal that brought da Costa to Upton Park also saw one of West Ham’s biggest transfer errors of recent times depart. Savio Nsereko joined West Ham in January 2009 for an undisclosed fee, believed to have been in the region of £9m. Technical director Gianluca Nani was instrumental in the German U-21 international leaving Brescia for the Hammers – Brescia also being Nani’s former employers. But the Ugandan-born forward was a major disappointment in East London, starting just once with nine further substitute appearances and failing to score. Every football team makes mistakes in the transfer market, but when West Ham’s perilous financial position is considered, those blunders are even more devastating. While £9m does not buy you what it used to in football, the Hammers cannot afford to waste any amount of money in their situation – which makes the five-year contract awarded in June 2008 to the now-retired Ashton all the more regrettable.

Loyalty is an admirable quality, both in football and in everyday life. West Ham may have felt they were showing their loyalty to Ashton when they offered him an extended deal in June 2008 on the back of a season that brought 11 goals in 35 games, since the former Norwich striker had missed the whole of the 2006/07 season with the ankle injury that eventually ended his career. Ashton played just a handful more games for the Hammers after signing his new contract. While it may be mostly hindsight to question the practicality of such a decision, questions should have been asked at the time – a five-year contract for a player with a history of serious injury problems should have rung alarm bells somewhere at the club.

Fortunately for West Ham, the injury currently troubling Carlton Cole is much less serious. Missing with a knee injury, the ex-Chelsea striker is expected back in January but there are constant rumours surrounding the England international’s future at Upton Park. A talented and physical player capable of all kinds of goals, Cole would fit in at any top team in England – he could provide the foil for Fernando Torres at Liverpool, cover for Didier Drogba at Chelsea, an added dimension at Manchester United or the target man many feel Arsenal lack. If one of the big four tests the Hammers’ resolve to keep Cole during the transfer window, outside forces may dictate the former Aston Villa man moves on. Cole’s departure could provide Zola with upwards of £10m to spend, but unless the Chelsea legend can purchase a time machine to sign himself from 1997, he would be much better served keeping hold of his star striker and continuing to wheel and deal in the transfer market.

The situation is not irretrievable for Zola. The Hammers’ next six games include three London derbies, against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and, in the F.A Cup, Arsenal, and three relegation clashes against Bolton Wanderers, Portsmouth and Wolves. The games against their capital city rivals will be tough, but West Ham would not be the first team to upset the odds in a local skirmish and the remaining fixtures see the Hammers go to Bolton tomorrow and host Pompey and Wolves – all winnable games. West Ham fans sing of forever blowing bubbles, where their dreams fade and die – now they will be hoping their team can avoid a similar fate.

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