Chadwell Heath training ground, Friday lunchtime, and little or nothing to say for once about the proposed takeover of a club at which the same (Cearns) family has been represented on the board for all 106 years of their existence. West Ham's manager, Alan Pardew, is at last able to talk about football pure and simple; his tone combining relief at having ended a catastrophic run of eight successive defeats last Sunday with a certain apprehension about this afternoon's visitors to Upton Park.
"With all due respect to Blackburn," he says, "they're not quite as big a challenge as Arsenal. Arsenal are up there perhaps with Barcelona with the way they play, the movement and the beauty."
On Wednesday against CSKA Moscow, of course, Arsène Wenger's team were all beauty, but no beast. Julio "The Beast" Baptista was absent, and 24 goalscoring opportunities were missed. Pardew can only wonder for now what effect that might have next time out, and whether his team can exploit it.
"I don't think we've caught them at the best time," he admitted. "Their performance in the week was certainly 97 out of 100 without having that final kick into the net. So I think Arsène will be buoyed by that. What we have to guard against and use is that maybe there might be slight tentativeness in front of goal. So we have to make it as difficult as possible for them to get shots off."
One of the ways of doing that will be an attempt to suffocate Cesc Fabregas in midfield, which on the young Spaniard's current form might be compared to catching the wind. Pardew holds him in the highest esteem, and knows just how much is being asked of his central midfielders: "I think he is suggesting that he's the best midfield player in the world in terms of all-round skills. He's a player we'll need to take care of, and make sure he doesn't have a lot of time on the ball.
"He's really at that level, a midfield player who can create and mix it and do everything, I think he's right up there and I think that's reflected in his new eight-year contract. Himself and Thierry Henry, if you were to pick a World XI, you wouldn't go far wrong putting those two in, for sure."
Not that West Ham's approach will be negative. At the Emirates Stadium, where only naïve newcomers such as Watford and Sheffield United have been beaten in the Premiership, they might just have been tempted to follow the recent example of Everton and Middlesbrough in sitting tight and hoping for one break. The Upton Park crowd, however, most of them with memories of competing against Arsenal in days of greater equality, would not stand for that; admitting inferiority is hardly an East End trait. "If you go into your shell, you can end up defending for the whole game," Pardew said. "We have to have the same approach as last year, which is, 'How do we hurt them, affect their game?' "
"Last year" referred both to the goalless draw at Upton Park in September, when West Ham proved they would not be out of their depth on returning to the big league, and the ransacking of Highbury on the February night that Sol Campbell went AWOL. "We hadn't won there for something like 11 years," Anton Ferdinand said on Friday with impressive recall of his club's recent history. "To break that duck was very exciting. But this is a new game."
Big brother Rio was consulted during West Ham's ghastly run, and has been told that training has remained appropriately "bubbly", and that despite rumours of dressing-room rifts, "we're a together bunch".
The younger Ferdinand would also like to put on record the squad's appreciation of their manager at a difficult time: "He showed great character and kept his cool and hopefully he gets his little bit of luck as well by us going on a run and taking the pressure off him. He's never said it's our fault, he's a positive-thinking guy, and hopefully that will get us out of this mess. We definitely owe him."
Pardew knows it is in the inter-ests of a generally young team to bear the brunt himself, and has done so with commendable selflessness and dignity, even as reports continue to suggest that if and when a takeover finally happens, he will be left seeking alternative employment. By chanting his name right at the start of last Sunday's game, the home crowd tried to ensure that any potential new owners know where their sympathies lie, and Pardew was particularly touched by the gesture, which may well be repeated shortly after kick-off this afternoon.
"It was something I will treasure," he said. "It was a nice moment for me and I can't thank the fans enough for it. The backing they gave the team and me was a typical East End reaction to adversity. I'll lock it away with a few other little treasures and maybe one day when I'm sitting on a beach somewhere I shall pull it out." Sadly, and whatever today's result, an enforced beach-break could come sooner than he would wish.Reuse content