WHEN Avram Grant talks about wanting ‘hungry’ players, he is not thinking of the overweight Benni McCarthy so much as the fired-up Robert Green.
The way Green celebrated West Ham’s win over Tottenham, the first since the Hammers denied Spurs a place in the Champions League four years ago, showed the passion that bubbles under the surface of the goalkeeper.
Green is not one of football’s most excitable men, and indeed most managers want their goalkeepers to keep a cool head and emotions in check when they are on the pitch.
But you could not blame Green for his fist-pumping celebrations at the end of a hard-fought win against West Ham’s bitter rivals Tottenham. Not only was it their first Premier League win of the season, lifting them off the bottom of the table, but it was also a first clean sheet for the player who took more personal criticism than any other after England’s dismal exit from the World Cup this summer.
Green was publicly humiliated by Fabio Capello for his howler against the USA, letting Clint Dempsey’s shot trickle into the net during the 1-1 draw that cost England dear. He took the brunt of the blame for all that followed, and his confidence clearly suffered under the magnifying glass that hovers over the Premier League, especially with the far-from-happy Hammers making their worst start in living memory.
So after a five-star performance that included a string of superb saves to break the hearts of the men from White Hart Lane, who would deny Green the gestures he made at the final whistle towards the fans in general and press box in particular?
Not Grant, whose undertaker-like demeanour disguises a man passionate about the game and who wants to see emotion in his players.
“I don’t think emotion is a negative thing if it is taken the right way. It is not good if it takes you down, but I don’t want my players to be without it. It is not about the money.
“I love being in the Premier League, and I love to see the same passion from players. Football is about emotions, whether you are a player or a journalist. That is why we are in the game.”
Of course it is different for a manager, who has to produce results or face the consequences, and the knives were being sharpened when Grant’s team started with four straight defeats before drawing at Stoke last week. “I always feel under pressure,” he added.
“But I don’t want to be not under pressure for one minute in this job. Pressure is good because it pushes you to the right places. I can control it and direct it where I decide, whereas some people let it control them.”
Green appeared to be letting his summer of woe get to him, and admitted turning to the club’s chaplain for help. Grant also did his best to help.
“I like to speak with my players, and of course I spoke with Robert. He is a great goalkeeper, and he has some good days, some bad days. Today he made some great saves.”
Indeed the stop Green made from Luka Modric in the 39th minute of an entertaining game was world-class, tipping the Croatian’s volley on to the bar. He also made superb saves to deny Rafael van der Vaart twice and Jermaine Jenas, as West Ham clung on to Frederic Piquionne’s 29th minute goal for a rare victory over Tottenham.
Suddenly West Ham’s fans are not so despondent.
“I always said not to judge us after three games,” added Grant. “We are getting better. I have a way to improve the team. If you look at what I have done in the five years I’ve been in England, my teams always progressed. Chelsea got to the Champions League final and although it was different at Portsmouth, I had good days there too.
“The bad thing is that we had no points but the good thing is that it was still early in the season so we had time to improve and start getting results. There is still a long way to go and it won’t be easy.
“West Ham is not a project for one year, but for longer term. We are playing good football and now we are getting points too. We have a vision here. We don’t have a lot of money because the owners have inherited a lot of debt, so we have taken hungry players that want to succeed.”
Harry Redknapp has done a similar job at Spurs, taking them from bottom of the table to Champions League, but his squad is now struggling with the demands the competitions bring. His four first-choice central defenders were injured on Saturday, and Vedran Corluka’s switch from right-back was not a success. Redknapp admits he is missing the injured Jermain Defoe, and Tottenham do not have the same goal threat without the former Hammers striker.
“He gives us something extra up front, the movement and the threat. But we are also struggling at the back. We had an attacking line-up but it is hard to balance the team with the players we have fit. We had chances but Rob Green was great today – he’s a world-class keeper.”
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