Etherington and his Hammers pray for the big breakthrough

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The Independent Football

Only a defeat in excess of 3-0 at Wigan this afternoon can keep West Ham from a place in the First Division play-offs. Hammers supporters will confirm nervously that, after the season they have endured, anything remains possible. Even the die-hards would not reach for a rosier description than "roller-coaster'', but in the thick of the surges and the stumbles the remarkable consistency of Matthew Etherington has proved a crucial factor in the club's success, recognised last week with the award of Hammer of the Year.

Only a defeat in excess of 3-0 at Wigan this afternoon can keep West Ham from a place in the First Division play-offs. Hammers supporters will confirm nervously that, after the season they have endured, anything remains possible. Even the die-hards would not reach for a rosier description than "roller-coaster'', but in the thick of the surges and the stumbles the remarkable consistency of Matthew Etherington has proved a crucial factor in the club's success, recognised last week with the award of Hammer of the Year.

It has been quite a nine months for the 22-year-old Etherington. Arrival at Upton Park as a makeweight in the sale of Frédéric Kanouté to Spurs, sent off at Norwich, stretchered off at Sunderland, his first professional hat-trick (against Wimbledon) and now voted the club's best by the fans, the first player to achieve this in his debut season since the goalkeeper Lawrie Leslie 42 years ago.

Today's game will be Etherington's 42nd, almost as many as he managed in four years with Tottenham, and though he admits to "a few little niggles here and there'' the left-sided midfielder is in top form as West Ham enjoy a run of full points and eight goals from their past three matches in the bid to bounce straight back into the Premiership.

Conceding that it has all been hectic, the quiet-spoken Cornishman is in no doubt that it has been his best-ever season. "I didn't get much of a chance at Tottenham and when I left I knew I would be better for playing regularly, and I have been. I have come on a lot, got better and stronger. I'm delighted.

"It was a gamble taking a step down into the First Division, but West Ham are really a Premiership club; they get crowds of 34,000, they belong there. So obviously I thought they wouldn't be in the First Division very long and will get back either this season or next. Fairly soon, anyway. We've got a great chance now, we're on a great run, looking solid, and we can still go up another couple of gears. If we are at our best, I think we will do it in the next few weeks.''

Having already played for England at 16, 18 and 21 levels, Etherington is anxious to complete the full set, and readily concedes that he has little hope of catching Sven Goran Eriksson's eye outside the top division. However, he is one of that rare breed, a genuine left-sided operator, and Alan Pardew, who has followed Glenn Roeder and Trevor Brooking as Etherington's manager at West Ham, claims: "He is good enough to threaten the England squad. He has played as well for me as he did for Glenn and Trevor. Despite playing under three different managers and having a total of 34 players around him this season, Matthew has been a consistent factor for us.''

Etherington's quiet manner tends to disguise a confidence in his abilities. "I wasn't really surprised to get the Player of the Year award,'' he smiled. "I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but I thought I had a chance because my form has been so good. But to actually get it is another thing, a big achievement. Everything has worked out better for me than I could have expected. I have a good understanding with the fans, they have been brilliant to me, really helped me.''

Help has been forthcoming all the way for Etherington. Born in Truro and brought up in Falmouth, where his father had a butcher's business, he was signed as a 12-year-old by Peterborough, and when he found the regular journeys from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire what he called "a bit of a drag'', the family moved home to further their son's career. And at Peterborough he found the unique Barry Fry recently installed as manager. So the help continued. "Barry gave me a chance in the first team as a 15-year-old schoolboy and he was brilliant to me.''

When George Graham bought Etherington and another 18-year-old, Simon Davies, for Tottenham from Fry for a joint fee of £1m, the step up into the Premiership had been achieved commendably early. But Graham's departure, and the arrival of Glenn Hoddle as manager, put the brake on the progress.

"I wasn't happy under Hoddle,'' Etherington said. "I felt I didn't get a fair crack of the whip there, it was very frustrating. I always thought, no matter how well I played, if Christian Ziege was fit, then he would play the next week.''

At one stage Etherington went on a two-month loan to Bradford City, where he played every game, but the return to White Hart Lane left him still unsettled. "I just couldn't get a consistent run in the first team, and at that level you need to play week in, week out to prove yourself. So I decided I needed to get away as soon as possible, and when West Ham came in for me I just knew I would be all right here.''

Having been seen by Hoddle as a winger for Tottenham, Etherington has evolved into a left-sided midfielder at West Ham, part of what he considers to be the maturing process. Although naturally left-footed, he has scored with his right this season. "I also write right-handed, but then I play snooker with my left hand,'' he said. "I'm all over the place.''

But the place to catch Eriksson's eye will be on the left. So long as the Hammers don't suffer a four-goal roller-coaster dip this afternoon.

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