Curbs battles on in sack race
Alan Curbishley goes into the new Premier League season with the vultures circling. One of the favourites to be first for the chop, the former Charlton Athletic manager knows he must start the season well.
On paper, Curbishley's achievements at Upton Park are impressive. After taking over from Alan Pardew with the club in relegation trouble they looked doomed to life back in the Championship before his Carlos Tevez-inspired side pulled off the most remarkable of escapes.
A few million pounds and a summer of rebuilding later and Curbishley had a squad which comfortably finished in the top half of the Premier League last season. It was the first time in six years the club had managed to finish above the fold in the top flight. Surely that progress was enough to merit support from the board?
Curbishley has defiantly insisted he will not be the first out of the back door this season. 'People need to have a reality check. Finishing 10th was a big achievement,' the 50-year-old said after being told of the bookies' odds for his demise.
Rumours over his future had already begun to surface towards the end of the season when the Hammers amazingly managed to replicate Curbishley's Charlton by completely taking their foot off the gas for the final months. It infuriated many fans who felt the club should have been pushing for a place in Europe.
With Slaven Bilic enhancing his reputation by leading Croatia to Euro 2008 he was tipped to move into club management with the club he played for in 1996/97. Bilic's decision to extend his contract with the national team may have quashed those rumours, but many more wait around the corner should West Ham stutter. The fact that West Ham sacked their last two managers - Glenn Roeder and Pardew - in the early part of the season is hardly reassuring.
It doesn't bring stability to a football club when the man responsible for its long-term future planning is constantly under the microscope. The Hammers' season will be summed up purely by who holds the manager's position in May. If it's Curbishley they've have a good season, if not it's likely struggle has forced a change at the top.
Curbishley was unlucky last season as far as injuries go. Almost every week he seemed to lose another important player to the treatment table. Highly-rated new signing Julien Faubert was injured in a pre-season game and barely played all season while Craig Bellamy managed just eight Premier League appearances.
Added to that, Kieron Dyer played the sum total of 192 minutes before being stretched off with a double leg break against Bristol Rovers. Almost £20million of talent signed to improve the squad was rendered useless.
And others, such as £3million Freddie Ljungberg and £7million Scott Parker, found their debut seasons hit by niggling injuries. Fitness problems were not restricted to transfers, though, with several other players having their campaigns disrupted.
Granted, players like Bellamy and Dyer hardly have the best track record when it comes to injury. But to have virtually every new player hit with long-term problems must have been infuriating for Curbishley.
After an average start to the season which saw the Hammers 11th at the end of October, they found their form in December and finished the year with a third consecutive victory over Manchester United before picking up their first win over Liverpool for more than eight years.
West Ham were, by this point, firmly placed in the top half of the table and with a considerable gap to Tottenham Hotspur were able to experiment in the remainder of the league season.
There was disappointment in the FA Cup as the Hammers lost at Manchester City in the Third Round but they were unfortunate to lose at home to Everton in the quarter-final of the League Cup, when they must have fancied their chances of glory.
Curbishley chose to give the club's Academy stars a chance to impress, with Freddie Sears proving to be the highlight. The 18-year-old striker scored the winner against Blackburn Rovers just six minutes after coming on as a substitute. Defender James Tomkins and midfielder Jack Collison were also handed the chance to shine.
West Ham won just one of their last eight matches and two of their last 12. Included in that run, the Hammers lost to Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham 4-0 in successive games. If ever was there a record to suggest a team had already retired to the beach this was it.
It's the kind of record that should put at manager under pressure; conversely if you look at the club's performance across the season, taking into account the injury problems, Curbishley should be praised. The Hammers board may not demand silverware but consistency will be key.
Even so, Curbishley must prove himself again or face the chop. Faubert and Parker are fully fit but there remain doubts over Bellamy and Dyer. The decision to effectively cancel the contract of Ljungberg is confusing as, contrary to popular belief, he actually played 25 Premier League games last term.
To date, the Hammers only signing of note is £5million Swiss international Valon Behrami from Lazio. It could be that the Hammers board are awaiting a return on the £30million spent last summer before investing again. The lack of transfer activity has fuelled the rumours over the boss.
There is still much expected of Faubert, the first player to wear the number 10 shirt for France following the retirement of Zinedine Zidane. As a quality, goalscoring midfielder his loss for 2007/08 was a sickening body blow. If he does manage to recapture the form he showed at Bordeaux to earn international recognition West Ham will have a quality player on their hands.
West Ham also need Dean Ashton to firmly rediscover the form which he showed after joining the club. He's another player who has faced constant paper talk over his future, but in reality he's lacked the consistency to earn a move to a bigger club. This is the season he must step up with 15-20 goals.