Winterburn at home in the new age

Steve Tongue meets a warrior who is happy to serve the more creative
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The Independent Online

Whatever the Premiership table may say after eight days' football, it is a time of vintage claret at Upton Park. One point from the first three games hardly reflects just reward, and there have been no complaints about the contributions of Nigel Winterburn and Stuart Pearce, the left-sided pair with a joint age of 74.

Whatever the Premiership table may say after eight days' football, it is a time of vintage claret at Upton Park. One point from the first three games hardly reflects just reward, and there have been no complaints about the contributions of Nigel Winterburn and Stuart Pearce, the left-sided pair with a joint age of 74.

Harry Redknapp is particularly pleased with Winterburn, for whom, contrary to popular belief, he paid Arsenal a six-figure sum: in the age of the £30m transfera modest enough price for someone who the West Ham manager asserts "has done fantastic".

Winterburn would not go that far, because he is not that type. When you have been handed down by Birmingham and Oxford United without making a single first-team appearance, and finally get your big break against Newport County in front of 2,007 people, it is as well to adopt a down-to-earth approach.

That first chance came in 1983 for Wimbledon, where he hardly missed a game in four seasons before joining Arsenal as understudy, and soon successor, to Kenny Sansom. With a biting tackle, a trusty left foot and a good forward surge, he fitted admirably into Arsenal's "famous five" at the back, and was eventually rewarded with winner's medals in three League championships, two FA Cups, a League Cup and a European Cup-Winners' Cup.

Yet Winterburn's own assessment of his job is characteristically unpretentious: "I see my role as winning the ball and giving it to the more creative players in the team, and supporting them from there. We have got some fantastic individual players here, if you just look at the forward line we put out against Chelsea of Davor Suker, Frédéric Kanouté and Paolo di Canio. As we become more of a team I think we will get better and better, because Davor and myself have come in and it takes time to realise what other players want. I think there's no doubt Davor will score a lot of goals, and now he's got his first, which is probably a relief to him as a forward."

Suker, like his former Arsenal team-mate, has been adjusting to a new formation, in this case with wing-backs, which Winterburn finds a test for 34-year-old legs: "There's a lot of work involved, a lot of it unselfish work, which people probably might not appreciate." Fitness, in the widest sense, is, then, of the essence; in the canteen at West Ham's Chadwell Heath training ground, where not long ago players would have egg and chips shovelled on to their plates, pasta and fruit are now the norm.

Winterburn accepts that foreign coaches like Arsÿne Wenger, and the fitness trainers they have employed, have had an effect: "What Arsÿne brought in, in particular, was attention to diet, and supplements for before and after games. Then there's a system of bounding and jumping that we happen to use here as well. I think there's a new way of thinking starting to come through to all clubs, and maybe the days of the long runs they used to do have gone now."

The new ways seem to have worked well for the old lags at Highbury, where Lee Dixon (36), England's new captain Tony Adams (34 in October) and Martin Keown (34) are still first choices, while their former team-mate Steve Bould, at 38, holds on to Sunderland's No 5 shirt. Had Silvinho not begun to oust him last season, Winterburn would happily have stayed in north London. As it is, he was not prepared to put up with the prospect of reserve-team football at a time when some were suggesting England could have done worse than use him to plug the gap on their left side.

Winterburn, capped against Italy at Wembley in 1989 and Germany in 1993, and last called up (without being used) in the final match before Kevin Keegan took over, does not believe that to be a realistic option, or even a desirable one: "When I've been playing well and people have put my name forward, I've said that realistically, my main aim is to play club football. It takes longer to recover from each game these days and really, although everyone wants to play for their country, international football at my age would be a hindrance rather than a help.

"In any case, I'm not really setting targets now. At Arsenal I didn't play much in the last six months, and West Ham offered me the chance of more regular first-team football."

More power to the thirty- somethings. And, Winterburn and Co would wish, more points to West Ham as the treatment room slowly empties - though games at Sunderland and Tottenham this week do not provide the most obvious opportunities for bounding and leaping up the table.

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