Club Focus – West Ham – Positive signs at last

It has been a rollercoaster week for West Ham United. Before the Birmingham City game there was a feeling around the club that defeat against the Blues would have been a strong signal that the team would struggle to fight its way out of the relegation dogfight, especially when considering the defeat to Burnley.

There was talk about it potentially being Gianfranco Zola’s last game and West Ham’s financial plight dominated the headlines. The fact they have been paying players and staff extortionate wages over previous seasons was all over the tabloids and Zola himself came in for a lot of criticism for his rumoured £1.9m-per-year salary – higher than the majority of Premier League managers. The main issue surrounding the club before the game, however, was co-owner David Sullivan’s words that everyone in the club would have to take a 25% pay-cut. The club has been haemorrhaging money in recent years and need look no further than the fee rumoured to be around £1.2m for Zola’s assistant Steve Clarke, the £20 000-per-week fringe players such as Manuel Da Costa are rumoured to be earning, and the almost £7m fee and £65 000-per-week wages the club has shelled out on Kieron Dyer for 15 appearances and no goals for the club.

Sullivan’s words subsequently galvanised the team, something which he admitted he had intended to do in a message to the fans on the club’s official website: “Although not popular with many, my words were the last resort. It was necessary to do whatever we could to give us that something extra we didn’t have against Burnley, Blackburn and Portsmouth.” West Ham’s starting line-up for the Birmingham game was one of optimism for the fans. Many supporters have been critical of Zola’s 4-5-1 policy, so to see him change his tactics to 4-4-2 was refreshing. On paper the strike force of Carlton Cole and Mido was a strong one, supported by the creativity of Alessandro Diamanti and the work rate of Valon Behrami, with Scott Parker and Radoslav Kovac providing the steel in midfield. It was the strongest team Zola has been able to field in a while. It is a sign of the progress the club has made in recent weeks that Frank Nouble has been allowed to join Championship promotion hopefuls West Bromwich Albion on loan, having had the job of spearheading the attack on his own in recent matches.

Birmingham have been no pushovers in their first season back in the Premier League, with the investment of Carson Yeung, astute transfer dealings and a stable first XI making them a force to be reckoned with. However, there was no way they were going to leave Upton Park with anything – the Irons were fired up and were backed by their usual excellent support. A couple of early Birmingham half-chances proved to be a false dawn as West Ham began to take control of the game and a world-class free-kick from Diamanti sparked a mass show of support from the players as they all charged over to celebrate with their manager. Zola has since played down the goal celebration as an act of defiance against the Chairman, saying that it was just a showing that the players and staff are together as one. Carlton Cole added a second goal in the second half after good link-up play between Behrami and Julien Faubert down the right, before Cole got on the end of Faubert’s cross. It is a huge relief to Hammers fans to have him back and scoring goals.

West Ham’s next game is a huge one as they take on Hull City at Upton Park. Last time the sides met it was a 3-3 thriller at the KC Stadium, with West Ham scoring twice in the opening 10 minutes before finding themselves trailing at half-time. It is a must-win game for Zola’s men as they entertain a Hull side who are poor away from home. Victory over Manchester City in their last home game will give them confidence, but West Ham’s home advantage will see them start as favourites. It is also a big game for West Ham as their opportunities to pick up points will become much harder in coming weeks, with their next three away games seeing them travel to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates. With another six-pointer against Bolton thrown in the middle of these fixtures, it is a testing time for the club approaching.

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