Football: Toto experience sharpens Hammers

Norman Fox hears how an early start has proved beneficial
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ON THE conveyor belt of daft ideas which Uefa never stops propelling, the Inter-Toto Cup, introduced in 1996 and immediately renamed by the Sun the "Inter Two-Bob Cup", seemed like one of the front-runners. English and Scottish clubs refused to worsen their workloads by competing, leading to dark threats of recriminations from headquarters. But, on Tuesday, West Ham will treat their final game in this maligned competition as their most important since winning the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1965.

Whether or not the idea of extending the chances of qualifying for the Uefa Cup was yet another example of the European ruling body being determined to feed television with as much football as it would pay good money to broadcast is not something that now bothers West Ham. If they can overcome a 1-0 disadvantage in the Inter-Toto final-round second leg in Metz they can secure a place in Europe proper. Their manager, Harry Redknapp, says he has not faced a more significant game since he took over in 1994.

"This is the season in which I feel we must win a trophy to prove that we are a big club," he said. But the Hammers are certainly going about it the hard way. The Inter-Toto Cup is no money-spinner. It starts when most people are on summer holidays (and when most of the players think they should be among them) and tests the loyalty and financial resources of even the most loyal of supporters. Indeed, West Ham reduced their prices for the home game against Metz because Redknapp badly wanted to create a powerful, not to say hostile, atmosphere for the visit of a good French side. More than 25,000 turned up. He brought his players back from their summer break less than seven weeks after the end of last season. In their first match they faced the Finnish side Jokerit whose coach, Pasi Rautianen, said West Ham played as if they were "still getting rid of the alcohol" of their summer while his players were already in the middle of their season. Redknapp thought that any tiredness was simply a lack of match fitness. "We did fine, considering we had only just got back... especially because I reckon Jokerit played with five sweepers at Upton Park."

The early start (the first match was on 17 July) not only meant that players exhausted by last season's push to reach the highest Premiership position in the club's history (fifth) had little time to recover. They also immediately ran the risk of injuries and of ruining the team's chances of doing even better this season by becoming stale before Christmas.

The club spokesman Peter Stewart said: "We have to be realistic these days. There is no way that we are going to win the Premiership, so a Uefa Cup place has become the priority." The players' response is that they would rather play competitive pre-season matches than friendlies.

"In any case," Stewart said, "the Inter-Toto has given a lot of them an experience of European football. Even if we don't get into the Uefa Cup, the games we have played will be useful for the future." Perhaps so, but if they fail, surely the playing of several tough games while most other clubs have been strolling through meaningless friendlies will take a toll in the Premiership? "I've no doubt that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages," Redknapp said.

The early pressure has put the depth of his squad under the microscope. He admitted that after the first game against Jokerit he was looking around thinking he had "no competition in some areas of the team". An injury to Steve Potts made the defence particularly vulnerable. Ian Pearce and Neil Ruddock had long-term injuries and Rob Jones was not fit. Stuart Pearce was ineligible and the brightest of the youngsters, Joe Cole, sustained an ankle injury.

"We got by" Redknapp said of the 2-0 aggregate win over the Dutch side Heerenveen. A missed penalty by Frank Lampard against Metz at Upton Park, resulting in a not undeserved 1-0 defeat, seriously damaged the chances of reaching the real European stage. Success, however, would make slightly more sense of a monstrous 10-month season on the domestic treadmill.