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Football: Rio grand, but can the Hammers hold him?

COOL, STRONG, good in the air, comfortable on the ball, just 20 years old; no wonder Rio Ferdinand is spoken of as a fixture in England's defence for the next decade, the natural successor to West Ham's supreme hero, Bobby Moore.

Moore spent most of his career at Upton Park, international achievement bolstering his preference for familiar surroundings at a time when there was no great profit in switching allegiance.

Times change. "Who knows," Harry Redknapp replied reflectively when recent speculation about Ferdinand's future was put to him. "What we're trying to do is make the progress that will keep Rio and other young players who are coming through happy."

Ferdinand's performances may be doing wonders for Redknapp's peace of mind - "I sleep easier just knowing he's in the team," - but West Ham's manager must live with the possibility of losing him. "The way things are in football now it is difficult to keep a player when he can double, even treble his wages by going to a club that has a good chance of winning the championship."

If common sense prevails, Redknapp lives in hope that an extension of the improvement sustained since the relegation worries of two seasons ago will endear Ferdinand to the club he has grown up with. Now sixth in the Premiership after a seventh place finish last term, their realistic target is a crack at European competition.

At the risk of going overboard about a player who still has things to learn - a mistake that could hinder Michael Owen's progress - Ferdinand looks made for it.

The most glowing tribute comes from his French teammate Marc Keller who was brought up with Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thurman of his country's World Cup winning team. "Marc says that Rio will be in a different class to both of them," Redknapp added.

More than any other factor, Ferdinand's assurance under pressure enables Redknapp to risk the perils of momentum that allows the opposition room for retaliatory manoeuvre.

Saturday's 2-1 defeat of Everton clearly emphasised West Ham's ability to break. Everton were not so much transformed in the second half as realising the possibilities arising from the Hammer's eagerness to get forward.

"It became end to end stuff. We were running past each other in midfield," Redknapp added.

Behind in the 19th minute when Keller's attempted centre found their net after looping over Thomas Myrhe and striking the far post, Everton drew level when Danny Cadamarteri forced home a low centre from the substitute Nick Barmby.

Everton, however, were unable to consolidate, their goal falling again almost immediately when Trevor Sinclair launched himself at Keller's cross to head the winner.

Not that the game's fluctuations were over. Chances came at both ends and on another day Ian Wright, who foolishly got himself a mention in the referee's report for booting the ball out of play, might have been on a hat trick.

A battle of wills in midfield between Eyal Berkovic and his shadow, Olivier Dacourt, briefly went the Everton man's way when he began to spring forward, but it swung again in an exciting finale.

Not in the least troubled when he is left without frontal protection - shades of the best defender ever to wear England's colours - Ferdinand dealt calmly with crises that arose from Cadamarteri's eager surges.

Even so, West Ham almost paid for their profligate finishing when conceding a free-kick from 20 yards in the last minute.

Dacourt struck it well but Shaka Hislop, adding to the good impression he has made since arriving on a free transfer from Newcastle, turned the ball for a corner.

Walter Smith offered no excuses for a defeat that ended Everton's mini revival. "We didn't perform in the first half and after getting back into the game we threw it away with bad defending," he said.

Honours in that department went to the player whose ability causes Redknapp to drool.

"Frightening," he said.

Goals: Keller (19) 1-0; Cadamarteri (71) 1-1; Sinclair (75) 2-1.

West Ham (3-5-2): Hislop; Pearce, Ferdinand, Dicks; Sinclair, Lomas, Berkovic, Lampard, Keller; Hartson, Wright. Substitutes not used: Forrest (gk), Breacker, Potts, Omoyinmi, Lazaridis.

Everton (3-5-2): Myrhe; Bilic, Materazzi, Unsworth; Ward (Collins, 75), Grant (Barmby, 64), Dacourt, Hutchison, Cleland; Cadamateri, Madar (Branch, 64). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Farley.

Bookings: West Ham: Lomas, Wright. Everton: Dacourt, Hutchison, Bilic, Cadamarteri.

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

Man of the match: Ferdinand.

Attendance: 25,998.