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Spector overcomes injury woes to re-enter the picture

LONDON -- Expect plenty of time on the treatment table if you play for West Ham.

The injury list at Upton Park perennially lingers, with the likes of influential striker Dean Ashton and roving midfielder Kieron Dyer -- OK, he's always hurt, no matter what the club -- missing chunks of the current campaign. Former manager Alan Curbishley blamed the malaise on training-ground pitches in East London, a theory only partially accepted by the Hammers' passionate, and always expectant, fans.

Whatever the reason, the curse afflicted Illinois utility man Jonathan Spector last season just as the 23-year-old began to cement a spot at one of England's most famous sides. Mind you, not as famous as Spector's first team in the Premier League, quintuple-chasing Manchester United, which produced jack-of-all trades duo Phil Neville and John O'Shea.

Spector returned to first-team action in December after hip surgery, though injuries to teammates -- of course -- have meant a slight increase in action under popular pint-sized Italian Gianfranco Zola, Curbishley's successor.

Spector spent time on loan at Charlton under Curbishley before switching to West Ham three years ago.

"Coming back from injury is always difficult, especially being out for an extended period of time," Spector said. "On top of that there's the new manager and new players. I knew coming in it would be a tough season this year, but at the same time, the manager stressed he wants me to be at the club. I had some loan options turned down because he wanted me to stay."

According to Spector, who inked a new three-year deal in November, West Ham rejected overtures by Sunderland, a few Championship sides and Germany's FC Koln in the January transfer window.

He made his lone start in a 2-1 loss at Bolton on Feb. 21, lining up at right back and setting up Scott Parker's consolation effort; entered as a midfield sub in a 1-0 win at Wigan on March 4 when top prospect Jack Collison sustained a freakish knee injury; and surfaced in the first half of a dour 0-0 stalemate Monday at home against bottom-feeders West Bromwich Albion that dented West Ham's UEFA Cup (Europa League for the technical-minded) chances.

This time, central defender Matthew Upson got struck down, thanks to a calf problem, and Spector strode on as a right back after a reshuffle, marking a fifth appearance since his comeback. Zola overlooked Spector for a midfield start, opting for the flashy Savio Nsereko and on-loan Czech Radoslav Kovac with Collison, Dyer and Swiss international Valon Behrami sidelined. The U.S. international picked his spots going forward, unlike left back Herita Ilunga, less averse to exercising caution.

Despite his fondness for playing in the center of defense, a position he adopted at under-23 level, Spector sees his future in England at right back.

He's unworried about his style not meshing with Zola's attacking philosophy. Curbishley, gone in September, employed more conservative tactics, and Spector's new deal, in the works for a while, picked up steam when the Englishman was at the helm.

"To be honest, I like the way the manager has us playing," Spector said. "It is attacking, which the fans have enjoyed, and we've had a fair amount of success playing that way. I'm a defender naturally, so I didn't expect to come on in midfield Monday. But it looks like a few opportunities may open up for me, and now it's down to me to make the most out of them."

What do those West Ham fans make of Spector?

"I think he's one of these players most people think is never going to be a star," said Iain Dale, a political commentator and writer who runs the West Ham Till I Die Web site. "He's not going to score many goals and dribble for 40 yards. But he's quite reliable and very useful, and every team needs a player like that."

If current right back Lucas Neill departs when his contract expires in the summer, Spector might finally have a stable position. Then again, as Dale suspects, Zola could buy a replacement.

Anything that develops in the next two months is a bonus.

Spector made his 26th and final appearance of the 2007-08 season in April, the hip keeping him out thereafter. Training with the national team ahead of glamorous friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina, he was diagnosed with a torn labrum. A pitch had nothing to do with it; Spector blamed genetics.

His hopes of competing at the 2006 World Cup dashed because of a dislocated shoulder, Spector endured more disappointment, missing out on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The right hip won't ever be 100 percent. A realistic target is getting it above 90 percent.

"I couldn't be happier with how I've felt," Spector said. "The surgeon actually expected that I'd have pain my entire first season back. I haven't really had any pain or discomfort even after the surgery. I'm totally surprised how well it healed and how much stronger everything around my hip is. I continue to do the exercises I was given by the trainers and physiotherapists and just stay on top of it."

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.

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