The Nick Townsend Column: Baby, you can drive my Bentley - but only if we're still in the Premiership

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The Independent Online

As a hush descended over his audience, Alan Curbishley puffed his cheeks, affected an insipid smile and attempted to find words to articulate that rare phenomenon for him. Humiliation. This was not a manager's typical post-match lament, one of mere disappointment with his players, frustration with officials or the attribution of defeat to ill fortune. This was something different after the West Ham manager had witnessed his team sleepwalk to ignominy.

What happened at the Madejski Stadium last Monday was a salutary warning to all those sportsmen inebriated with transient success; those who have been brushed with the paintwork of greatness, and believe that the protective coating thus created can never be chipped or damaged. It reaffirmed that though the Premiership is the domicile of the lustrous talent of Cristiano Ronaldo and Co, it is no haven for what the Match of the Day pundit Mark Lawrenson would refer to as "the Billy Big-timers".

Though Curbishley's demean-our conveyed many emotions, it was embarrassment and raw anger which combined to produce what amounted toridicule of his players; not just by comparing them directly with the opposition but in terms footballers fully understand. "They want to be in the Premiership," he said of the host team. "They want to drive the Baby Bentleys."

No, most of us at the Madej-ski in the aftermath of West Ham's six-goal trouncing were not immediately familiar with that ostentatious display of a footballer's progress either. Baby Bentley? A middle-aged Mondeo maybe. We are hardly in the market for what transpired to be a £110,000 Continental GT Coupé which boasts what the blurb des-cribes as "phenomenal power" and "class-leading performance". In essence, the antithesis of what Curbishley's men offered.

You don't often get a whole team suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder at set-pieces. It was not just the craven nature of the defeat but the fact that Curbishley's only ambition in the second half was to "stop it from being eight". True, last season Arsenal put seven past Middlesbrough, but then at least Steve McClaren's side were overwhelmed by the Thierry Henry-inspired class of the Gunners.

Here, you suspected it was the wrong team to meet at the wrong time. Perhaps against aristocrats, the Hammers would have raised their game. But against opposition containing Arsenal cast-offs and arrivistes from the lower leagues, they simply faded and died. Or, as the Israeli Yossi Benayoun reflected with brutal honesty: "We played like drunks".

Viewed positively, it may just have been the reveille the London side required. A fixture that could have receded into anony-mity may have become a defining moment in West Ham's season. Yet as Curbishley prepared to spend his new chairman Egg-ert Magnusson's reported £20 million-plus on reinforcements - with Fulham's captain, Luis Boa Morte, the first arrival - the manager would have been mindful that his team need to win possibly half their remaining matches to preserve their status.

At this time last year, Dean Ashton was the catalyst for an FA Cup sequence which culminated at the Millennium Stadium. This year, Curbishley requires characters strong of heart to deny the siren call of the Champion-ship. As the manager declared, the Premiership is "unforgiving".

"Some of those players have only done one-and-a-bit years. You need six years [a passing nod to his former club Charlton's presence among the elite] before you call yourself a Premiership player."

Instead, heads were turned. An open-topped bus ride? For finishing ninth, and being (albeit gallant) FA Cup losers? For some, like the captain, Nigel Reo-Coker, it was followed by flirtation with an international call-up and links with Manchester United. For others, flirtation with Page Three models was enough to confirm that they had arrived.

In fact, their journey had only just begun. As Curbishley suspected from the start, the Hammers overachieved last season, and by some measure. Self-belief propelled them as far as it did. But in doing so, some egos became saturated. That is inevit-ably a dangerous condition.

Too many players have been embracing the dream while failing to appreciate the unrelenting demands of continued Premiership existence. As West Ham began what is acknowledged as a vulnerable season, one following unexpected success, they were back-sliding as they continued to relish the back-slapping.

There remains, though, outside admiration for their players' quality; men such as Benayoun, Reo-Coker, Anton Ferdinand and the goalkeeper Robert Green. Recently, I asked Stuart Pearce about Alan Pardew's bequest of personnel to Curbishley. "I'd take at least eight of those players to come and work here," enthused the Manchester City manager.

From that perspective, hope persists. West Ham will always be a charismatic name, capable of enticing gifted performers. The self-styled "academy" has produced fine players for generations. But the club, and their players, need to be reminded that the Premiership has no respect for history or reputations.

Curbishley suggested that his Reading counterpart, Steve Coppell, may have to beware a similar "second-season syndrome". Not a chance. When someone tried to entice a "Nicky Shorey for England" line out of the stone-faced manager, there was a terse response. "He has recognition," Coppell said of his admirable left-back. "He plays for us every week - and that's all he needs." A few West Ham players may have benefited from a similar dose of realism last summer.

Sorry England, you can't teach mental strength

From the subject of a 6-0 Premiership rout it is but a brief leap to a 5-0 Ashes whitewash. As England's second innings was concluded and Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath danced off into the sunset like Morecambe and Wise, having brought sunshine to Australia but precious little laughter to England, it was easy, perhaps too easy, to bracket England's capitulation with some of the observations above, notably that of premature adulation.

But this sequence wasn't about heart, or the arrogant belief that Andrew Flintoff's men were the finished article. It wasn't really about a perceived lack of guts and pride, either, though that was the predictable response from many callers to radio phone-ins the following morning.

The England way, in such circumstances, is immediately to start forming a committee. Duly, the ECB are to undertake a "comprehensive review" of what went wrong. Preparation, selection, the captaincy and coaching will all come under scrutiny. Possible improvements will be identified, but any number of committees can do little about intangibles.

Attitudes of mind have been questioned throughout by the coterie of former England captains present on Sky duty. Nasser Hussain was outraged by an interview with Stephen Harmison in which the troubled bowler, who appeared desperate to get home, showed a lack of clarity about what lies ahead.

England arrived an inferior force, believing that young legs and alert minds were capable, over a five-match series, of living with a team who might just suffer from some senior moments. At times, they did co-exist in terms of performance. But victory at the elite level is not necessarily about raw quality, it is about mental strength, the ability to dig in during a period of adversity at crucial moments, and England rarely matched Australia's.

The problem for England is that it cannot be taught.

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