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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/05/04, 3.00pm
West Ham United
How much?
By Matt Rowson

Don't know what the problem is, personally. I mean, it's not as if twenty seven quid is a lot of money these days... not what with a pint costing two quid, house prices going through the roof, cinema tickets, petrol. Bloody hell, twenty seven quid is nothing... I mean, we're talking about Premiership football.

Oh yeah.

More fool (some of) us for forking out, I suppose, but this sort of nonsense only makes the possibility of scuppering the Hammers' play-off bid all the more attractive. Not that they've generally needed much help in stuffing up, of course... the averageness of the division can be the only explanation for their lingering presence in the top six despite a distinctly inconsistent and unconvincing campaign. However it's difficult to overstate the importance to West Ham of promotion this season, and therefore of Saturday's game. Even if rumours of a 47m debt are wide of the mark, and even if the club's brusque rebuffal of claims apparently made by a supporters' group, "Whistle", this week regarding the state of the club's finances was well founded, the best chance of promotion following a relegation season will always be in the subsequent campaign, as we know only too well. West Ham never expected to be here, but now they're here they need to make sure that they don't become part of the furniture.

Stephen Bywater was the chief beneficiary of David James' transfer to Manchester City; the long-time backup keeper is now first choice ahead of Pavel Srnicek who looks increasingly like a Mexican bandito, albeit quite a chubby one.

The much-maligned back four is still the weakest area of the side, but have managed to restrict the goals conceded column to one in the last four games. The suspension of Tomas Repka ("useless psychotic lump", according to one messageboard appraisal) which concludes on Saturday may or may not be coincidental.

The central pairing should therefore consist of Scottish international Christian Dailly and veteran Andy Melville. Hayden Mullins, who has been moved from pillar to post since his arrival from Palace but has generally impressed, will probably be given the job of looking after Lee Cook at right back. Left back is the problem, with Rufus Brevett not quite back in contention having been out all season and Jon Harley back at Fulham after a patchy loan spell. Wayne Quinn is the only senior, available left back but no longer seems to be regarded as a serious option either by the support or the management, who are more likely to select the distinctly right-footed Anton "brother of Rio" Ferdinand. Midfield anchor Kevin Horlock and highly rated young centreback Chris Cohen are both regarded as more plausible left-backs than the obviously not-so-mighty Quinn.

In midfield, the recent return from injury of Steve Lomas, West Ham's longest serving player, is seen as important, and certainly seems to have helped provoke a significant upturn in form on the part of his partner in the centre of midfield Michael Carrick, perhaps fortunate to be voted into the Division One PFA team. A more worthy candidate by all accounts would have been West Ham's player-of-the-season-elect Matthew Etherington, who should play down the left flank. Twenty-three goal Marlon Harewood has been playing down the right, where his penchant for running at defences can be employed but his relative limitations with his back to goal are less important. However, with charmless little oik David Connolly suspended, Harewood is likely to partner Bobby Zamora in attack; this should leave the right-sided role open for either winger Jobi McAnuff or his former Dons team-mate Nigel Reo-Coker, should Pardew favour a more compact midfield. Don Hutchison is another option but is more likely to start on the bench.

Zamora's season is gradually clunking into gear after several false starts; that he has made a great deal of signing for the club he supports will buy him time if he needs it, one suspects. Connolly's suspension is likely to mean that Brian Deane is the main attacking alternative on the bench.

West Ham haven't lost at home in the league since January and we've not won at Upton Park in over twenty years. May 1st has recently been a date for memorable away achievements, however... our only win against Gillingham for thirty zillion years was on this day three years ago, and in 1991 the David James-inspired win at Oxford implausibly saved us from relegation. With our First Division position all but safe, it would be good to end the season on a high. And perhaps David Connolly's quest to perform at a level befitting of the talents he clearly believes that he possesses might have to wait a little while longer.