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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
06/07: Reports:

Division One, 22/08/06, 7.45pm
Watford
versus
West Ham United
 
Second Rated
By Mike Peter

I have to admit, I find the notion of "second teams" highly dubious. Firstly, and most importantly, it's the idea that your love for your "first team" can be ranked, put in order - that something can compare to it, that there's a team any other than your own. Love for a football team should be unconditional, something that cannot be summed in verse, prose or lyric. It shouldn't be quantified. I love Watford this much. I like Team X a tenth of that.

There should be one team. And you should love them. Then there are all the other teams.

I'm certainly not saying that I maintain a stance of ambivalence towards every club other than Watford. Oh no, there are clubs I like - Bournemouth, Preston, Charlton - and clubs I don't - Luton, Palace, Leeds. But how can one possibly sustain a "second team" (I'm still putting it in speech marks to show how questionable the idea is) when the likeability of a club is so susceptible to change. Charlton, for instance, have just been taken over by Iain Dowie, and I have little doubt he will turn them into one of the most spiteful, nasty teams in the land. Would I still be able to keep them as my second team (should I have one) with him in charge? Of course I couldn't, and yet the notion of a second team suggests a degree of permanency that, saying I hung onto Charlton, would cast doubt upon my credentials as a Watford fan. Here I was, forgiving faults in other teams - big faults. As I said, the love of a team should be unconditional - but how could it be so if I was forgiving the flaws of other teams? Put it this way, I would never, ever question a Millwall fan's love for their team (I'm quite attracted to my teeth, for one thing) but I'd raise my brow cynically should anyone ever call them their "second team".

Leeds, of course, were many people's second team five years ago when they were riding the crest of the European wave and playing the most attractive football in the country. Those were the days when they didn't moan about deserving to be in the Premiership (not etc.) because, of course, they were and they were obviously a bit above the cloggy, Shaun Derry inspired stuff they play today. With the media so focused on the top echelons of football it is inevitable that many fans may, under a bombardment of press-based praise, choose a second team. Such was the case with Leeds a few years back.

West Ham would be another one. When I was growing up West Ham were a very likeable team. They were chock full of talented young English players, and played good attacking football. People still harked back to the days of Peters, Moore and Hurst. Of course, their star waned. They, like Leeds, were relegated, and they stopped becoming many people's second team - for most simply because they were out of the media spotlight. Because, of course, a lot of people who have second teams are just armchair fans. But how could I have justified having West Ham as my second team, should I have wanted to do so. When they were muttering about their "right" to be in the Premiership (although, admittedly, not half as badly as Leeds did when they came down) and playing their dull, Vialli-esque sideways football because they were a classier team than us. How could I like them when they preened their way to promotion with a squad far better than most but putting in so little effort.

Of course I couldn't have seen myself a year from then, screaming for the Hammers - virtually their only supporter in a pub full of plastic Liverpool fans. I felt genuinely gutted that day - lest we forget, no team outside the big four has won the FA Cup since 1995. I imagine you get my point by now. I liked West Ham, I disliked West Ham, I liked West Ham. They were never my second team, and that's the way it should be. I certainly admire their achievements last year, and it can only be seen as an example to us, as to what we can achieve. Admittedly Pardew's resources were far greater before he went up, but if we show belief, there is little doubt in my mind we could be in West Ham's position in a year's time - challenging for a place in the top six.

Tuesday should come too early for new signing Robert Green, who's still recovering from a ruptured groin (sounds painful!) sustained in the England B game against Belarus last May. Green has come to the Premiership looking to establish himself in the England squad, and it seems odd that in order to do so he has come to a team with many quality keepers. Roy Carroll, himself only just coming back from a back injury sustained in January, was (contrary to a lot of reports) none-too-shabby at United. One wonders whether Pardew would have splashed out on Green had Carroll been fit all of last year, especially when third-choice Jimmy Walker is a competent keeper himself. Meanwhile Stephen Bywater, keeper for much of the Hammers promotion season and former England Under-21, has been sent on loan to Derby.

Tyrone Mears and John Paintsil will battle it out for the right-back berth, each having played forty-five minutes in the Hammers final pre-season game against Olympiakos. Both summer signings, Paintsil played in every game of Ghana's most impressive World Cup campaign. Mears, meanwhile, was part of the rock-like defence that took Preston to the play-offs two years in a row - now upsettingly destroyed, incidentally, by the sale of Mears and Claude Davis. The implausibly capped Paul Konchesky is in firm possession of the left-back position. The two other options here - two more summer signings - are both out injured. American Jonathon Spector sustained a shoulder injury whilst on loan at Charlton from Man United last season. Nonetheless, West Ham saw enough potential to pay 500,000 for the youngster - to a club whose Academy nowadays seems to solely exist for the purpose of producing squad-players for other clubs. Former Sunderland captain George McCartney - rescued from the Black Cats wreck of a 2005/06 season - has an ankle injury.

In the centre, Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon formed a somewhat shaky defensive partnership last year, conceding more goals than relegated Birmingham. Nonetheless, each are regarded as fine defenders on their day - Ferdinand has been mentioned in relation to the England squad and Gabbidon was last year's player of the season. Should either be murked by Anton's brother, flame-haired Welshman James Collins would be next in line, although Paintsil could also fill in here if needed. Christian Dailly is also pottering about somewhere, his usefulness as a utility player no doubt undermined by the spate of defensive arrivals.

Against Olympiakos Pardew played three in midfield, due to injuries to usual starting wide-men Yossi Benayoun and Matthew Etherington. Although Benayoun is now fit, it would seem unlikely that Pardew will revert to his preferred 4-4-2, with only 18 year old Kyel Reid able to play on the left. Presuming Pardew does stick to 4-3-3, Benayoun, one of last year's most impressive Premiership buys, should move to the centre (a role he has played for Israel) and drive forward. Either side of him will most likely be 22 year old captain Nigel Reo-Coker - left out of Steve McClaren's first squad, but previously put on stand-by for the World Cup - and the divine Lee Bowyer. Somewhat inevitably Bowyer's arrival at Upton Park has provoked a mixed reaction from Hammers fans. In the FourFourTwo season preview the West Ham fan answered the question "Who would you most like to get rid of" with "Lee Bowyer." However, he currently leads a poll on a fan website voting on the club's best summer signing. Snarler Hayden Mullins is another possible option.

The Hammers have shaped one of the most exciting sets of strikers out of the top four. The best of the lot, Dean Ashton, broke his ankle in England training earlier this week - dealing a body-blow to the Hammers preparations. Still, the three strikers Pardew is likely to field - Carlton Cole, Bobby Zamora and Marlon Harewood - are a potent strike-force, albeit they all belong to the same school of forwardship. Harewood would appear to be the most dangerous of the three - proving his doubters wrong with an impressive fourteen league goals in his first season in the top flight. He was talked about in the build-up to the World Cup, if only in a "many alternatives to Theo Walcott" way. Zamora, one of the many players to be linked with us in the summer, blows hot and cold. He scored ten goals last year, but none after February. Cole, who finally secured a permanent deal away from Stamford Bridge in the summer, has a lot to prove. His goals to games ratio is distinctly unimpressive and, unable to scuttle back to the security of Chelsea's reserves, he needs to finally start putting the ball in the net if he's to remain a Premiership player. The fifth member of the quintet is of course Teddy Sheringham, the Premiership's second oldest player. Pardew's only real alternative to the "pace and power" nature of his strikers; he may pop up at some point.

West Ham will come at us; I think that's pretty evident. Their strikers will certainly be a handful for Shittu and DeMerit, whilst Benayoun, Reo-Coker and Bowyer all like to move forward. However, whilst the return of Carroll will help, not all that much has been done to shore up their defence. Even more encouraging for Aidy will be the knowledge that West Ham have gone seventeen away games without a clean sheet.

They say the key to survival is a good home record. A positive start against West Ham will go a long way to establishing that.