I was out with a West Ham fan yesterday afternoon. Before long, the conversation turned to football. He’s happy with the way Gianfranco Zola’s taken to management and, with the astute Steve Clarke at his side, you can see the Hammers making strides forward should they be able to cast off the financial clouds that seem to be dogging them at the moment. I was struck by the way he described the marvellous job that Roy Hodgson has done though.
I’m always wary of how other fans view Fulham. Back around the time we sacked Chris Coleman, a lot of my friends were awfully surprised. They saw Cookie as a bright, young manager who had taken over at a club he had served well and got them punching above their weight. I’d often reply that they didn’t have to sit and watch the turgid football his side served up towards the end of his reign and they’d look non-plussed. This guy, though, said he was particularly impressed with the way Hodgson had utilised two former West Ham players, Pantsil and Zamora.
Let’s take the more controversial one first, shall we? Bobby, much criticised in this parished, is loved at Upton Park. Not only is he a Hammer himself but he scored the goals that took them back to the Premiership and kept them there. Their 2007 escape act will be remembered as the Carlos Tevez show – especially given the furore over his ownership and the Premier League’s handling of the affair – but Zamora was prolific in the final months of the season. He hasn’t produced that sort of form since but, with his strength and eager running, there won’t be too many defenders relishing an afternoon in Bobby’s company.
John Pantsil was a bit of fans favourite at the Boleyn Ground, too, though he was far from the fixture at West Ham that he is with us. Indeed, the received wisdom was that he’d try his best but be found wanting. We expected him to play second fiddle to Fredrik Stoor. John had other ideas, though. He’s become a key member of the best defence in the league outside the top four. There’s no doubt that Hodgson’s fingerprints are all over this improvement. Pantsil looks far more comfortable on the ball than at the start of the season – his composure when he carried it out of danger at Newcastle was remarkable – and has come on defensively too. Footballers should, of course be judged on ability alone. But fans do have their cult heroes. And Pantsil’s post-match recognition of the support he and his team-mates receive is terrific. He even acknowledged the travelling fans during the game on Saturday.
This got me thinking. Roy’s certainly made the best of a few cast-offs. Aaron Hughes had plenty of top-flight experience but neither the odious Graeme Souness nor Martin O’Neill saw him as part of their future plans. He didn’t pull up many trees during the Sanchez era and looked inhibited by nerves. He wasn’t particularly highly-rated and, like his compatriot Chris Baird, became a scapegoat as late goals continually scuppered our survival bid. The Northern Irish international is much more assured now and has been just as important to our miserly ways as Hangeland, although the Norweigan understandably gets more praise.
Hodgson’s certainly coaxed the best out of Dickson Etuhu too. The Nigerian was slated before his Fulham career had barely begun because he hadn’t been too much of a success at Preston, Norwich or Sunderland. Let’s face it, if he had starred for Roy Keane – for example – Dickson would have gone on to bigger and better things. The talent’s been there, as the likes of David Moyes and Craig Brown have recognised. His early performances were patchy as he felt his way back to full match sharpness, but his tigerish instincts have made him the perfect foil for Danny Murphy. The best thing is that Etuhu reckons there’s more to come from him.
Many thought Murphy’s best days were behind him when he arrived at the end of the summer transfer window. Appearances can be deceptive and it’s accurate to suggest that Sanchez’s direct style of play wasn’t designed with Murphy in mind. A cultured passer like the former England international can’t be expected to flourish when the ball’s flying over his head. Since Hodgson has restructured his team, largely around his clever captain, Murphy has come to the fore. His sumptuous passing – in evidence again at the weekend to free Erik Nevland for the goal – has unlocked plenty of defences this season and remains an extremely potent weapon.
The prospect of more new faces arriving in the summer fills the mind with wonder. Any talk of Europe remains premature, especially if Everton can replicate the kind of performance that saw them swat the Hammers aside on Saturday. But, however it finishes, Roy Hodgson deserves the sort of acclaim afforded to him towards the end of the Villa game. The man’s built a team without too many star names, but with plenty of grafters. Put them together and look at the result. Superb.