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Feb 5, 2007

Hammers' hope looks to be fading fast

Eggert Magnusson has the sort of expressive face that renders him incapable of looking impassive. It is a reason why the camera pans to West Ham's Icelandic owner so frequently.

Their worsening plight and inadequate results, coupled with his £19 million investment in the transfer window, are others. And when the picture is focused on Magnusson, his thoughts are betrayed by both his expression and his body language. They are rarely happy.

For much of West Ham's season, there has been an underlying feeling, bordering on complacency, that everything would be solved shortly, when Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano settled, when the takeover was complete, when Alan Curbishley took the helm, when he could introduce his own players.

Such notions should be forgotten, but a growing awareness of their predicament appears to led to an altogether different tactic: panic.

For West Ham are in the mire. The transfer window represented their last chance of a quick-fix solution, yet their methods were hardly indicative of a masterplan for survival. Instead, a scattergun approach prevailed.

Certainly desperation was apparent in the size of Lucas Neill's salary and their willingness to raise the bid for Matthew Upson, seemingly without limit, until Birmingham retracted and sold the unsettled centre back.

What is apparent is that, for Curbishley, the most instructive match of his brief tenure at Upton Park was the 6-0 thrashing at Reading, when he even introduced another defender at half-time in an attempt to avert further embarrassment. Left-back Paul Konchesky, an old adversary from his Charlton days, has not figured since then while Curbishley has attempted to assemble a new rearguard.

He has signed three defenders - Neill, Upson and Calum Davenport - and attempted to recruit at least two others, Hermann Hreidarsson and Lauren.

Indeed, the move for the Arsenal's Cameroon international came as the Australian was agreeing to swap East Lancashire for West Ham. While both Lauren and Neill are versatile enough to be deployed elsewhere, attempting to sign two right-backs simultaneously again indicates a willingness to buy anyone on offer. When availability is the sole criteria in the recruitment process, it is hard to envisage success.

It is as though Curbishley, after 15 years of prudence at Charlton, coupled with the necessity of immediate action in January, rushed headlong into an experience so uncharacteristic that it almost qualifies as an out-of-body experience.

Yet has the defending actually improved? Set pieces proved their undoing against Portsmouth, courtesy of a pair from Linvoy Primus, and Reading, but also more recently against Fulham. West Ham's sole clean sheet under Curbishley in the Premiership came in his opening match, the victory over Manchester United.

But, in 11 games, to select eight centre-back combinations and six partnerships in attack - and that is just in the initial team alone - is hardly evidence of coherent thinking. Rather, once again, it hints at panic in the desperate search for a winning formula.

Injuries can, and have been, cited as a reason for tinkering. Certainly seeing both Neill and then Upson sidelined in their first match is both uncanny and unfortunate. But it is too easy to attribute setbacks to absentees and can lead to the excuse culture that has undermined too many of England's sports teams.

Though Curbishley has attempted to deny highlighting it, the 'Baby Bentley' culture is another facet of life at Upton Park that is not exactly conducive to reversing their slide. Introducing Neill, on a reported £70,000 a week, is hardly likely to reduce the number of expensive automobiles in the car park.

The one hint of a change of attitude has been in the midfield personnel.

Both Luis Boa Morte and Nigel Quashie's careers have been notable for their competitiveness, Matthew Etherington and Hayden Mullins making way. Whether there has been an improvement is questionable: Boa Morte's most memorable contribution was the concession of a penalty at Newcastle.

And in West Ham's situation, an immediate impact is of paramount importance. Kepa Blanco at least obliged with a debut goal against Liverpool, but the striking situation is perhaps the clearest example of muddled thinking.

The industry of Marlon Harewood and Bobby Zamora helped defeat Manchester United, though the craft of Teddy Sheringham was required to create the winner.

But the initial favouring of the Brits suggested a Little Englander at work; Tevez, starting to appear a threat in the preceding games, was dropped and has been an irregular presence under Curbishley. The Argentine may be yet to score, but he is a crowd favourite while the most inspiration they have had was provided by another foreign flair player, Yossi Benayoun, against Fulham.

Mascherano, meanwhile, has been marginalized still further, Curbishley admitting he had been effectively written off within a week without providing an explanation why a player who was among the best in his position in the World Cup was deemed not good enough for a club embroiled in a relegation struggle.

His departure notwithstanding, a consequence of the relentless accumulation of players has been the size of the squad, now among the largest in the Premiership. While West Ham were the transfer window's biggest spenders, they have accrued three more players who have past Premiership relegations on their CV, four in Quashie's case.

Panic, however, can be a natural reaction, especially for those who have invested over £100 million, as West Ham's new owners now have, or who have put an enviable reputation on the line for the club they support, like Curbishley. Others have kept calmer.

Charlton, all but written off, kept a lower profile in their dealings but appear to be on an upswing, taking four points from tough trips to Portsmouth and Bolton.

Under Alan Pardew, they have not panicked. West Ham have, when they sacked Pardew, when they were hammered at Reading and for much of the transfer window.


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