Football: Wright's confidence rubs off

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The Independent Online
West Ham United 2 Liverpool 1

IT WAS 10.30 on Saturday morning when the phone rang in John Hartson's home. "Big Fella, it's Wrighty," bellowed a Sarf London voice. "We're gonna murder this lot today."

This, as much as the goals, is why Harry Redknapp moved for Ian Wright when he decided to leave Arsenal in the summer.

While West Ham did not exactly murder Liverpool, they gave them a fair going over and certainly did not look a team still reeling from the midweek capitulation against Wimbledon. Wright's attitude had a lot to do with that.

"When I first came back," said Redknapp, "and even last season, I'd have walked into the dressing room before a game like this, after a defeat like that, and it would have been dead quiet with no-one prepared to meet your eye. They'd have been terrified to go out, beaten before they got on the pitch. Today I went in there and Wrighty had the music up, Razor [Neil Ruddock] was going round geeing everybody up, they wanted to get out there."

The consequence was a goal in the fourth minute. The lead was later increased and, just as important, held in the face of a late Liverpool rally.

"Character". That was the watchword afterwards. "It was an important game for us after Wednesday," said Redknapp. "A test of character for everyone. But we now have so many bubbly characters."

You will not win championships and cups with character alone, but neither will you win them without it. Players like Wright have it in abundance. "He was the man at Arsenal, George Graham's No 1, and I was in awe of him," said Hartson, remembering his early days at Highbury. "If he shouted at me I'd hide, my touch would go, I'd be awful.

"Now our relationship is on a level, we're friends, he's still always shouting at me but I know he's just trying to gee me up. He's one of those guys you love or hate and we all love him. For all the money he's got he's not changed and I hope I've still got that enthusiasm at 34."

There are those who wonder if Hartson even has that enthusiasm now, at 23. For all his brash image - blond highlights and in-your-face aggression - he is surprisingly introverted, with a tendency to be lazy. It is a fault he is beginning to recognise. "Last year I scored 24 goals but almost all came by January. Then I eased up, I thought I'd done my bit. Wrighty won't let that happen this year."

Not that the problem is solved. Redknapp felt Hartson, having scored early against Wimbledon, eased up when West Ham appeared to have the game won. However, he felt having another go at the Welshman would be counter- productive so, after having a word with Wright first to outline the strategy, he called them both in and dressed them down together. With Wright sharing and accepting, the blame the message made a greater impact on Hartson.

"If we stay fit we'll destroy teams," added Hartson. That is a big proviso since he is already carrying an ankle injury he fears may be ligament damage and Wright missed the last half of last season with injuries. Equally important is whether they avoid suspension. So far this season they have played four games each, Wright has three goals and two yellow cards, Hartson two goals and three yellow cards.

Not that Wright is the only new influence. Hartson added: "Razor scares people, I used to be afraid to see his name on the team-sheet. It's great to have him on my side. After the game he walked in and said: 'We've shown we've got bollocks'.

Which is more than Liverpool's management showed when omitting Karlheinz Riedle. Having gone top of the Premiership with him and Owen in attack they left the 18-year-old to fend for himself against the bristling Ruddock, excellent Ian Pearce and composed Steve Potts.

The Dug-Out Duo, Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans, intimated that this was one of the trickier - and possibly disputed - decisions of their joint reign. The reasoning was partly to put Steve Harkness on Eyal Berkovic, partly because Riedle, 33 on Wednesday, needed a rest ahead of Tuesday's visit to Kosice. Liverpool changing their game because of the opposition, making the Uefa Cup a higher priority than the title? What would Shanks have thought? Without Riedle they were pretty impotent as Hartson headed in Frank Lampard's corner with the aid of a large deflection of Jamie Carragher, then Berkovic shot through an unsighted Brad Friedel. On came Riedle and, once Jason McAteer arrived to provide the crosses, Liverpool looked dangerous.

The German hit a post with one far post header, then scored with another. West Ham survived, though. Their victory underlined the evenness of the Premiership, notwithstanding the growing wealth of the likes of Manchester United. Only 11 can play at any given time and the influx of cheap foreign players, the annual pounds 7m Sky television dividend, Bosman and improving youth systems has created a levelling of standards. "It is," admitted Evans, "much more even than even five years ago. There really are no easy games now."

Of course, over a season the bigger clubs prevail through the depth of their squads. Redknapp, dipping into his favourite phrase, described his squad as "down to the bare bones". Last week he was offered, on a free transfer, Fabio Pecchia of Juventus. He took one look at the wages and ruled it out. Vincent Guerin, a high-quality midfielder formerly of France and Paris St-Germain, made it as far as a week's trial during which he impressed. But, though his wage demand was reasonable, the cupboard was bare. Thus the emphasis on character.

Goals: Hartson (4) 1-0; Berkovic (49) 2-0; Riedle (87) 2-1.

West Ham United (3-5-2): Hislop; Potts, Pearce, Ruddock; Sinclair, Lampard, Berkovic (Breaker, 90), Moncur, Lazaridis; Hartson (Keller, 86), Wright. Substitutes not used: Impey, Abou, Forrest (gk).

Liverpool (4-5-1): Friedel; Heggem (McAteer, 67), Carragher, Babb, Staunton (Matteo, 62); McManaman, Redknapp, Ince, Harkness (Riedle, 53), Berger; Owen. Substitutes not used: Kvarme, James (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Bookings: West Ham: Wright, Hartson, Moncur, Lazaridis, Sinclair. Liverpool: Harkness, Redknapp.

Attendance: 26,029.

Man of the match: Pearce.