On the wall of the canteen at West Ham's Chadwell Heath training ground a TV is screening a rerun of Chelsea's eclipse of Norwich City the previous night. It is just after nine on Thursday morning, the replay is viewed with more than casual interest and there are murmurs of approval as Gianfranco Zola's piece of sorcery is seen from numerous angles.
With victory for the Blues securing an FA Cup fourth-round tie with the Hammers next Saturday, and a Premiership rehearsal already assigned for this after-noon, Chelsea are a ready topic of conversation, and particularly so for the West Ham manager, who immediately declares his regard for his counterpart, Claudio Ranieri. "We beat them 2-1 at Upton Park, yet he took defeat so graciously," Glenn Roeder recalls. "First impressions are important and I got the feeling that he is a decent man."
Takes one to know one, according to the old playground insult. And decent, honest and down-to-earth are the kind of expressions that have been associated with, or should we say have dogged, Roeder since his installation at Upton Park in July. Nice guys do not survive in top-class football is the perception, if not necessarily the reality (step forward George Burley and Alan Curbishley). Inevitably, numerous commentators could not have foreseen Roeder ushering in the new year as West Ham manager.
"The great thing about the British people is that if you are continually whacked and they think it's unfair, they will support you," he declares. "They say, 'Enough is enough, give this fella a break'. I think that happened with me. I know I'm an easy target, but I've never had a problem with the supporters. They've been terrific, despite two horrendous results on the road, 5-0 at Everton and 7-1 at Blackburn. Hopefully I can repay that faith."
Grabbing a bacon sandwich from the serving hatch, Roeder eats half on the way to his office. He offers one. It is rejected, on health grounds. He, on the other hand, is built with a physique usually found among the runners at nearby Romford Stadium, and the cholesterol clearly won't do him any harm. Only later does he reveal that his father and grandfather both died in their early sixties, of heart attacks. "It doesn't look good," he says with mock solemnity.
Roeder claims never to have harboured doubts in his own abilities, which were honed by association with Glenn Hoddle, with whom he worked part-time for England. Indeed, the former Newcastle central defender and Watford manager might well have become No 3 at White Hart Lane if West Ham had not turned to him after being rejected by Alan Curbishley and Steve McClaren when Harry Rednapp left.
"Harry had a great run here, but last season we really dived," says Roeder. "We had done well for three terrific seasons, but then we nearly dropped off the end of the world. It was too close for comfort. Hopefully, this season we can come out of that downward curve."
Roeder, 46, had been on the Upton Park coaching staff for two years. "It's an honour to have this job," he says. "I grew up in this area and used to watch them. If a year ago, somebody had said I'd be manager of West Ham, I'd have said, 'You're kidding'. It simply wasn't a possibility."
You suggest that he came of age as a manager the day his team won at Old Trafford. He does not dispute the notion. And Sir Alex Ferguson? Was he gracious in defeat? "Well, he shook my hand...."
No doubt the apologies from those who condemned his promotion have caused the Upton Park postal delivery service to overflow? If not, maybe he has at least convinced a few sceptics? "I hope so, although outwardly, I'm not the sort of person to stick two fingers up to people now things are going well. Inwardly, I might."
In fact, West Ham's progress since that Old Trafford victory has provided the appropriate riposte to the critics, including Roeder's immediate predecessor, who originally appointed him. Redknapp, you suspect, was just being typically Harry when he said of his successor soon after the start of the season: "I met him at a dinner one night and felt sorry for him. He was out of work. A nice fella with a family [he and his wife, Faith, have two sons and a daughter]. So I gave him a job." He added that Roeder could not have expected to get the manager's post "in his wildest dreams".
Roeder reflects: "I was disappointed when Harry made those comments. It would have been better if he had kept his thoughts to himself. But I decided not to reply. I think that bickering in public is pathetic and I didn't want to go down to his level."
In fact, Roeder did aim something of a rebuke at Redknapp by referring to his signings after Rio Ferdinand's departure. Though he won't spell out their names, the likes of Titi Camara, Rigobert Song and Christian Dailly come to mind when he says: "Harry bought some terrific players into the club, including Paolo Di Canio and Freddie Kanouté. But there are a number of players in the senior squad who do fall short. That means I've no strength in depth. What we do this season depends on 12 players or so staying fit."
That will be the situation until West Ham offload certain players who remain on lucrative contracts, or as Roeder, whose own acquisitions (David James, Don Hutchison and Tomas Repka) have all proved successes, puts it: "You've got to wait for certain things to flush through before making changes that you'd like to make immediately."
Once West Ham attain a safety target of 42 points, Roeder hopes to blood one or two youngsters, like Glenn Johnson, an England Under-18 international defender, and a young Australian attacking midfielder, Richard Garcia.
If only they would develop like Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe. The latter, a teenager, is being nurtured, but Cole and Carrick have exhibited sufficient in central midfield to warrant consideration for Japan and Korea. "Both are well capable of going and playing a supporting role, like Rio Ferdinand did in France 98," says Roeder. "They will improve over the next four years, and generally midfield players don't peak until their mid to late twenties. However, if they were needed they would be up to the job."
West Ham might conceivably have four players on England duty this summer: Cole, Carrick, together with David James and Trevor Sinclair, though there is a distinct possibility that the latter, transfer-listed at his own request, could be clad in a different club shirt by then. Sinclair was recently linked with Liverpool, although Phil Thompson's reaction to the Hammers' valuation of £10 million was "at that silly price we're not interested".
Roeder was unhappy about that. "Phil really should have kept his opinion to himself," he said. "After all, we don't tell him what he should be taking for Robbie Fowler, or what he might ask for Michael Owen. We wouldn't dare to that."
He adds: "Unfortunately, that's the new way. Standards are different. I'm sure it wouldn't have happened like that in Bill Shankly's day. It would never have been discussed in public. Fortunately, Trevor's been very focused and I want him to stay like that because he's so important to us."
Roeder's forward planning has also been hindered by uncertainty surrounding Di Canio. It is almost certain that the Italian maverick will depart for Old Trafford, but Roeder insists: "It's in limbo. There's been no increase since Manchester United's first offer [reportedly £2.5m], which was turned down. As his manager, I'm very happy that he continues to play his part."
The longer he does, and Sinclair, too, the more likelihood there is of Roeder securing his team's Premiership status, and, he hopes, much more. "I'm putting everything into this job to make sure that we can swim in safe waters as soon as possible," he declares. Confident words from a man who is definitely not drowning, but waving.Reuse content