Walker's plea to the fates: don't be cruel

Championship play-off final: His heroes are Elvis and Shilts, and West Ham hope their keeper will stay on song
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The Independent Football

"I could be singing Elvis after. It could be my job," says the goalkeeper Jimmy Walker when asked about his post-match celebrations should West Ham United triumph in tomorrow's play-off final against Preston North End for a place in the Premiership. "You'll just have to watch this space," Walker adds. "But I'm definitely an Elvis man, you know. I've done it on a few occasions. If there is a mike near it usually gets used."

"I could be singing Elvis after. It could be my job," says the goalkeeper Jimmy Walker when asked about his post-match celebrations should West Ham United triumph in tomorrow's play-off final against Preston North End for a place in the Premiership. "You'll just have to watch this space," Walker adds. "But I'm definitely an Elvis man, you know. I've done it on a few occasions. If there is a mike near it usually gets used."

As it did on the pre-season tour to Sweden. Walker, who joined on a free transfer after a decade as a cult hero at Walsall, was sat with his new team-mates having a meal. "We were on this boat and there was a singer," Walker recalls. "Well, he was just useless. So I popped round the back and asked if they knew any Elvis. They didn't. So I had to chuck in a Neil Diamond number, 'Sweet Caroline', it was. I could see the manager sitting in the corner wondering 'what have I done?' "

Given that it has taken Walker until 12 games ago to convince Alan Pardew that he should start for West Ham - despite endearing himself to fans by saving a Frank Lampard penalty in last autumn's Carling Cup tie at Chelsea - he could be forgiven for having wondered the same himself.

"When I signed I knew it would be a hard process," admits Walker, who had to dislodge Stephen Bywater to earn his place. "Stephen is an excellent keeper and has a great future but I came here wanting to be number one. It's a big club and I can't complain. But having played every week for 10 years I just wanted to carry on playing.

"You usually have something to train for and that's to be at your peak for the next match. And when you don't have that, you train and wonder if you have done too much or not enough. It's not something I have been keen on, I must admit, but you just get on with it. I didn't have that release - so the cat got kicked a lot."

Nevertheless Walker felt he had to leave Walsall where he was out-of-contract. "I was happy there. We hung in for five years and every year it was like winning the League," he says. "But when they went down from the Championship it was the lowest point I have had in football. But it was also time for my career to move on. I am no glory hunter but I hope that I use my experience. I am 31 and they reckon that you start to peak now. So I am waiting for that. You look at the top keepers like Nigel Martyn and they are still going on."

Born in Nottingham, his hero was Peter Shilton, while there is also admiration for another who played on into his 40s, John Burridge. Indeed Walker may follow "Budgie's" example and sleep with his gloves tonight ahead of tomorrow's contest against Preston.

The three goalkeepers have another thing in common - height. Or lack of. Shilton just touches 6ft, Walker is 5ft 11in and jokes that West Ham's goalkeeping coach, Ludek Miklosko, asked "who is the short fat fella?" when he first turned up at the club's training ground. Even his autobiography is called Size Isn't Everything.

Miklosko did not need much convincing. Indeed last week the former Czech international invited his friend - and his country's current keeper Petr Cech - to train at West Ham so that he remains fit for next month's World Cup qualifiers. There was also a bit of psychology with the players practising penalties against the world's best. Cech, in turn, was warm in his tributes to Walker. "He's one of the best in the Championship," he said.

Walker now wants to make the step up. "Every professional worth his salt wants to play in what is probably the world's best league," he says. "If you have anything about you then you want to pit your wits in it." There is a quiet confidence at West Ham - they believe that, as with Crystal Palace, to whom they lost in the final last season, their late run may bode well. "We have sort of sneaked in at the back," Walker says.

Pardew is certain that Walker has been one of the main factors. In those dozen matches, starting with the surprise away victory at Wigan Athletic, West Ham have lost just once and conceded only nine goals, compared with four defeats and 18 goals against before Walker came in. His lively personality - his voice booms out across the training ground as he bursts into song - has also been a boost for a club who often feel weighed down.

The penalty practice was probably a good idea, too. The final could be that tight, especially as it seems, following on from the FA and European Cups, that shoot-outs are in vogue. "I've been involved in a few," says Walker. Such as the Auto-Windscreens Cup. "You do think about it and it's a great way to finish the game. Someone is going to be the hero and someone the villain. But I don't agree that the goalkeeper can't lose. OK, he can't be responsible for losing the game, but he can win it. And that's a great responsibility."

There won't be, he says, any antics similar to Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek. "It worked for him. But I won't be so bothered about the legs. If I did I would probably forget to dive at the end of it," Walker says. He has good memories of the Millennium Stadium. It was a late Darren Byfield goal which took Walsall into the Championship - at the expense of Reading, then managed by Pardew.

Walsall's achievements were extraordinary. The pressure at West Ham is very different. "This is a great club with great traditions and you don't realise just how great until you are involved," Walker says. "The fans have watched some unbelievable players over the years. They expect us to do well and rightly so. Over the last couple of months we've not slipped and if we can keep that going then we can write our own little piece of history." And sing about it, too.

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