New Season: New Beginning
The smell of new-mown hay; the sweet scent from flowers wafting on the breeze; the distant sound of a church bell gently undulating in the warm air while the sound of children's laughter echoes in the blue, red and grey, as they frolic under the heat of the sun.
Yep! It's the height of summer and time for the new football season to begin. Add the smell of Hot Dogs cloying the fetid air as the beating rays glisten of off 20,000 new XL.com shirts, and the sight of 10,000 hands being raised to shade the eyes so they can catch sight of the new man earning as much in a week as most of us do in a year, and you have the start of the race that we know will keep us enthralled for the next nine months. Great innit?
When analysing anything that involves those three words West, Ham and United you have to take a step back and remember virtually every season since the Hammers last played at the Memorial Grounds and be very, very wary. Almost without exception you would, at some time in the past, have become annoyed, angry, enraged, shocked, excited, happy, elated, exhilarated and disappointed. It goes with the territory.
I mean, just think on how plain odd last season was, for instance. Can you think how you would have felt if some time-travelling football fan had stopped you as you left Upton Park after the Charlton game last August and said 'Do you know, apart from Chelsea and ManU, you will have the best sequence of results over a ten match period and win seven out of nine at the run-in?' Or, conversely, 'Don't get too excited by that result. You'll struggle badly this season and only a league double over Manchester United and Arsenal will keep you up'
What would you have surmised given that information? You see, supporting West Ham seriously damages your health and sanity. We all know it and we all accept it, so let's not pretend we have any clue how this is all going to pan out, but just delve right in, put on our trepidatious underwear and speculate to look stupid.
First up: On paper this looks like a strong squad. The goal-keeping area is not something we need to be concerned about. I really think Robert Green could be the next Phil Parkes and I'm just waiting for the offers for Cossack Hair Spray to roll in (ask yer Dad) and then I'll be proved correct. The addition of Richard Wright can only help the squad while Jimmy Walker has always proved his worth when called upon.
In defence, there are serious questions about the left-back area - and that's no pop at George McCartney who looked very solid at the end of last season - but, that aside, the defence looks better than it has in a long while.
Injuries will always be an issue for any club, particularly one that has the name Matthew Upson pencilled in on it, but the feeling is that there are enough combinations to keep the best attack under control.
Despite the reservations of many fans I was pleased to see Rio's little brother commit himself to the cause. I've noted how any good runs in recent years; the FA Cup, the Play-off run-in and the Great Escape (@T.M. Patent Pending) have all involved Anton and another in-form partner. Firstly with Elliot Ward then Gabbidon and latterly with the Ginger One, Ferdinand has looked strangely comfortable in a strong partnership. Is Curbishley the man to make Anton a face at international level rather than someone who just likes 'Faces'? Let's bloody hope so. With the right handling and a map of the Isle of Wight and a photo of his Gran, it's not beyond the realms of fantasy to suggest Ferdinand could emulate his brother.
The loss of Yossi Benayoun to the midfield was a massive blow and it was not softened when Julien Faubert was badly injured in a pre-season friendly. The additions of Freddy - a superb signing - and Scott Parker (ditto) should ensure we have enough leadership in the middle of the park however to ensure we don't become overrun. There is an argument though, that the creative side of the game is slightly lacking there and it may be we will not see the best of the central area until Eggy waves the cheque book again or the Frenchman returns for his late start.
For me, the rise of Mark Noble, whose starts in the last ten games were just us much a reason for last season's run-in form as the goals from Carlos Tevez - who he? - is proof, were it needed, that we can always rely on strength from unexpected areas. The continuing advancement of Noble and others breaking through from the Academy is always a positive at Upton Park. We just need to hold onto them sometimes...
Up front, the return of Dean Ashton means that it is almost like getting a new player for free and, subsequently, there will not be another season's relegation struggle - and yes I will stick my neck out on that one! - as there's no doubt in my mind that the loss of Ashton last term was the main reason we struggled early on. Had Ashton been fit, he would surely have scored a minimum of 10 goals and the Hammers could have gifted the Premiership the loss of nine points and still have ensured survival, the relegation of Sheffield United and the shutting up of everyone from bloody double-standard man Dave Whelan, through to the Hobbit strangling tough Northern git Sean Bean and taking in everyone via the whingeing Blades management team to all the staff of the Daily Mail. In some parallel universe I still hope to see it happen one day.
I'd be lying if I said that Blagg Acres rejoiced at the signing of Craig Bellamy but it would be a fool to suggest that, if Liverpool thought he was worth playing in the Champions League, that he can't do a job for us. As ever, Bellamy's problems are in his head and, if he views this posting as a drink at the Premiership last-chance saloon, perhaps he may combine his undoubted talent, channel his aggression and prove to be a perfect foil for Dean Ashton. Bobby Zee has rarely let us down, either coming in off the bench or starting and I think we can rely on him to continue his form for his 'home' team. The jury is certainly still deliberating on Carlton Cole but, as someone who suggested several seasons ago that he should be signed (I also suggested we buy Ashton from Crewe - I'm here if you want me, Alan!) I hope he knuckles down and proves me right.
If there are any reasons to hope for better things then it really all comes down to Alan Curbishley. It was interesting that our loveable Telegoon look-alike saw fit not to continue efforts to rely on Marlon Harewood and Nigel Reo-Coker - both players who, on their day, had proved their worth - but Curbishley obviously saw something he didn't like and decided to get rid. Perhaps, the 'on their day' comment in that last sentence is a clue to what he saw. On the other hand, Curbishley has stuck with Etherington, Anton and several others who many fans may have been happy to see the back off so, if nothing else, it confirms that AC is his own man and will do what he sees fit. Never a bad trait in any person - providing the skill is there to begin with.
All of which brings me to the thing that makes this season one like no other. Curbishley was put in charge by the new Chairman. A man who, in a few short months, has swept away the old order at Upton Park and ushered in real hope and belief. I'd be lying if I said I wanted Curbishley last year, or indeed, ever - I've got a book that states it quite clearly so I can't deny it - but what I won't deny is that I have started to trust Eggert Magnusson implicitly.
Mr. Magnusson tells me that Curbishley and his team are the men for the job and I'm inclined to listen to what he says. The Iceman has given his Manager an open cheque book, which strangely seems to have annoyed some pundits who think we are trying to bother the illustrious 'big boys' in some odd way, and he'll know if he is getting his money's worth or not. As ever I will give full support to anyone remotely connected to the claret and blue and trust to luck that the good times are rolling again.
Mind you, if does end with Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer being arrested for happy-slapping a Tottenham fan, Eggy removing his backing, marrying Kerry Katona and taking up a job at Bejam while the Premiership deduct us ten points for failing to provide the correct amount of meat in a Martin Peters Tea Bar sausage roll before taking us to the Court of Human Rights, I wouldn't be at all surprised. This is, after all, West Ham United and we should expect the unexpected.
All in all though, I'm optimistic - I always am - but with real hope that things can be done swiftly if things do go non-football shaped. One thing we can rely on is 100% commitment from fans and the backing of what we all know to be the best set of supporters in the country.
Let's hope we're given something to sing about again.
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