Pardew's day of reckoning with a friend in need

The Championship: West Ham's manager craves a result today - which will ruin his mentor's season
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The Independent Football

Whatever the cynical and mean-spirited may think, West Ham's manager, Alan Pardew, does not relish the potential schadenfreude of this afternoon's conclusion to the regular Championship season. Superficially, snatching the final play-off place at the expense of Reading, who threatened him with legal action before an acrimonious departure for Upton Park 18 months ago, would be a delicious way to thumb the nose at John Madejski, the chairman whose reluctance to lose him led to m'learned friends becoming involved in a protracted dispute. The problem is that Pardew also left some good people behind, and was then followed into the manager's seat by one of his best friends.

Whatever the cynical and mean-spirited may think, West Ham's manager, Alan Pardew, does not relish the potential schadenfreude of this afternoon's conclusion to the regular Championship season. Superficially, snatching the final play-off place at the expense of Reading, who threatened him with legal action before an acrimonious departure for Upton Park 18 months ago, would be a delicious way to thumb the nose at John Madejski, the chairman whose reluctance to lose him led to m'learned friends becoming involved in a protracted dispute. The problem is that Pardew also left some good people behind, and was then followed into the manager's seat by one of his best friends.

"I owe so much to Steve Coppell," he said in a cramped Portakabin at West Ham's training ground last week, "and I wouldn't be standing here without him. So if he was to miss out, it couldn't happen to a worse person from my point of view."

Coppell has for 15 years been an inspirational force behind first Pardew's playing career - signing him for Crystal Palace from Yeovil for £7,000 and being rewarded with that famous winning goal in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool - and then his move into coaching and management. Now the sorcerer and his apprentice are competing today to end each other's season before the real excitement begins.

West Ham, at Watford, must match anything Reading do in a tougher game away to Wigan, who need victory to ensure automatic promotion. There is theoretically a way in which both could qualify, by winning their matches while fifth-placed Derby lose at home to fourth-placed Preston, but the odds are piled up against Coppell's side, who have the hardest game as well as the fewest goals.

As recently as last Saturday morning, West Ham appeared to have blown their chances by losing at home to a late goal from Sunderland. Reading stood above them on goal difference at that stage with a game in hand, but instead of moving three points clear, they also lost, at home to Wolves, and now sit just outside the four coveted places.

So, as ever at this level just below the Premiership, everything is desperately tight among the wannabes submitting their application forms for membership of the élite - however long they are allowed to stay there. Pardew recalls that a year ago Palace only made it into the play-offs because West Ham equalised in the 90th minute of the last game to deny Wigan a place; yet Palace went on to beat their London rivals 1-0 in the final, condemning them to another season among hoi polloi.

It proved a costly defeat for a club with debts at that time of £44m. Some £10m of that has now been knocked off as the remaining high-earners from the Premiership days moved on to Chelsea, Tottenham and elsewhere, while Pardew has sought replacements in the MK Dons' bargain basement.

"West Ham were trying to get into Europe and had some real big-hitters on massive money," he said. "I didn't get the club relegated, but I'm trying to get it back without putting it at risk, which is a fine line. Some of the work I've had to do has been really tough, like selling Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick. But I have to make sure the club has a future."

Supporters campaigning continuously for the removal of the chairman, Terence Brown, have proved hard to win over. Memories of finishing seventh in the Premiership three years ago mean that seventh place in the Championship would be regarded as failure, however many players have had to be sold. So the atmosphere surrounding the club has tended to be as cheerful as an average episode of EastEnders, with Pardew cast as the Queen Vic's Alfie Moon in all his forced bonhomie.

"All we've tried to do is keep positive feeling around the place amid some real negative media [coverage] and sometimes some real negative stuff from our own fans. I'd like to think we've battled through that and learnt to live with it. We're not bleating about it, not moaning about it, we just want to get into the play-offs and go from there."

Given the nature of today's matches, he feels the play-offs effectively begin right here, and that the most important factor is therefore to be in a run of good form, which West Ham can reasonably claim. Before the unlucky Sunderland defeat they had not lost for eight games, letting themselves down only in a draw with lowly Brighton, when inexperience told against the two 20-year-old centre-backs, Anton Ferdinand (brother of Rio) and Elliott Ward. They will be given another chance today, but wiser old lags like Christian Dailly and Malky Mackay are returning to fitness, as is Teddy Sheringham, the youngest-looking 39-year-old in the game, who has 21 goals to his name from 28 starts and wants to keep going for another year.

Sheringham could expect to be fit for the final on 30 May, when Pardew believes West Ham, if they can overcome Watford and then a probable repeat of last year's semi-final against Ipswich, would be stronger than 12 months ago: "We had Carrick then, which gave us a different look, but we've got more experience for the younger players like Nigel Reo-Coker, Hayden Mullins, Bobby Zamora and Marlon Harewood. We were brilliant in the two semi-finals, but in the final, yes, we were very disappointing. The fans in some respects didn't forgive us, and I understand that."

Best to strike, then, while the Irons are hot, for forgiveness will be equally unforthcoming if it all goes wrong at any time in the next three weeks. Questions would be asked about Pardew's future and would have to be answered in the beleag-uered boardroom. "That decision's not mine," he admitted. "I think I'm a good manager, and I've done the job to the best of my ability. My contract gives me two more years and I'm already planning for next year, whatever scenario we have."

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