Lomas eager to heal pain of troubled times at West Ham

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Do not expect Steve Lomas to have a smile on his face when he arrives at the Millennium Stadium today for the First Division play-off final. Make no mistake, the West Ham United midfielder loves playing - especially after the horrendous injury problems he has had - but "enjoyment" doesn't come into it.

Do not expect Steve Lomas to have a smile on his face when he arrives at the Millennium Stadium today for the First Division play-off final. Make no mistake, the West Ham United midfielder loves playing - especially after the horrendous injury problems he has had - but "enjoyment" doesn't come into it.

"People say to me after a game, 'oh, you must have enjoyed that'," Lomas says, "but nine times out of 10, unless you are four or five goals up with half an hour to go, you are so focussed and concentrated on what you are doing. Enjoyment wouldn't be a word I associate with it."

Take, for example, the play-off semi-final against Ipswich Town which set up the contest with Crystal Palace. "I enjoy that now," he says, "but through the game it was on such a knife-edge - and when the fella hit the post, oh..." Luckily, the shot from the "fella", Ipswich's Ian Westlake, rebounded out and not in. West Ham were through in one of the most exhilarating nights at Upton Park for years.

It was certainly the best Lomas, 30 now and seven years at the club, could recall. "In the past some of the lads have thought they [the fans] can turn pretty quickly but this year I think they've been superb," Lomas says. "They have stuck with the team, especially early in the season when we weren't doing enough. And that's putting it kindly."

Lomas was out injured then and has only returned for the last seven games, steadying West Ham with three victories and two draws and into the play-offs. Before then the experienced Northern Ireland international had been sorely missed and the story of his absence, caused by a damaged ankle, is a frustrating one.

Desperate to help West Ham stay in the Premiership last season, he played when he should not have done, going from one game to the next propped up by pain-killing injections. "Sometimes it reacted well, sometimes it reacted bad," he says.

Part of his motivation, undoubtedly, was the illness, a brain tumour, suffered by the then West Ham manager Glenn Roeder. "With what was happening here, the plight we were in, I just told myself to get through these games," Lomas recalls. "I wanted to play. It was important. We all knew the difficult situation we were in but playing hindered me." With one defeat in the last 11 games, and 42 points in total, West Ham still went down. Even now Lomas struggles to believe it happened.

His disbelief grew. He had an operation on his ankle and took himself off to Canada for a summer of rehabilitation - leaving behind his pregnant wife and seven-month old son. "So it was a big sacrifice, on all counts, not just mine, my wife as well," Lomas says.

However, when he came back the injury was no better. The operation had to be done again and he was robbed of more months. "I felt like it was one thing after another and the omens were against me," he says.

The omens were certainly not good for West Ham either. "The club had to let the players go, with the wages they were on and so on, just to keep things on a financial even keel. We knew that as soon as the whistle went at Birmingham [City, on the final day of last season]."

And so the fire-sale started. Because of his injury Lomas wasn't a "saleable asset". But, if fit, he may have left. "One never knows," he says. "You just had to look at the club's plight. I'm settled here and don't want to move but the club's plight was that it needed to get players off the wage bill."

Those that have left, he says, remain upset. "Relegation is something, even for those lads that left, which is terrible," he says. "But with the team we had, it makes it even worse. I was relegated with Man City one year and it wasn't as good a team, as good a squad. That was a major disappointment but not as much as last year. There were players, young players, with years ahead of them."

One by one - Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Frédéric Kanouté, Jermain Defoe - they departed. If the squad had remained together or even if others such as David James and Ian Pearce had not been sold, Lomas remains convinced they would have secured automatic promotion.

Not that he could do much about it. "At least for some of the other lads they could go out and get it out of their systems, while I just sat and stewed, thinking 'well, I've been part of a team that had been relegated with a record points total'," he says. "And that made it all the more frustrating."

It became even more daunting when a new manager, Alan Pardew, arrived. Lomas had no doubt about his own ability but "he's bringing in his players and you wonder 'am I going to be part of this, and if I have a full season out who's going to want to take me'. But it's turned around for me." And for West Ham. The play-offs, after all the upheaval, were "realistic".

Now reality has dawned. The two-legged victory against Ipswich set up today's game against Palace and, at first, Lomas appears to add fuel to Iain Dowie's fierce motivational fire when he dismisses the South Londoners as the "worst side" West Ham faced this season. But hold on. Lomas is referring to the side before Dowie - his former international team-mate - arrived as manager. "No disrespect to Palace but at the start of the season when they came down to Upton Park [a 3-0 win for West Ham] they were probably the worst team we played," says Lomas. "After they played us I spoke to Michael Hughes and we were saying it's going to be a long hard season for them as they were really struggling." Hughes is another he knows well and one who has thrived in his move to central midfield. "It'll be the two snarling Irishmen," says Lomas. "It should be a good battle."

He sees similarities between Dowie - "an intelligent guy, pretty passionate and doesn't suffer fools" - and Pardew. "It's a new breed of manager, looking for new ideas. Iain always trained hard," he says. Dowie was, in fact, a West Ham player when Lomas joined in 1997, "but he wasn't into all this new-fangled stuff. But you have to say it's working for him."

What works for Lomas is quite clear. "You have to have a certain amount of self-pride," he says. "Pride in how you look after yourself, pride in how you train. Because how you train is how you should play and with the same sort of commitment. You can't just switch it on or off and turn in a top-class performance. You need to prepare in the right manner."

And so one thing he is looking forward to this summer is the pre-season training - having been deprived of it for the past three years (he also suffered a cruciate injury three seasons ago). Hopefully that will come after another break across the Atlantic, but this time with his wife, son and baby daughter at their holiday home in Florida. When he returns, he hopes, it will be with West Ham in the Premiership. Then he will allow himself a smile.