After making a favourable impression in their first club jobs, Alan Curbishley and Mark Hughes landed at bigger but less stable outfits and discovered that the change means an awful lot more attention, expectation and, inevitably, criticism. There will be much of mutual interest to discuss after West Ham's game at Manchester City this afternoon. In the run-up to it, both men are urging supporters, in Hughes's words, to "calm down".
In 15 years with Charlton, Curbishley helped forge such a strong club out of the adversity of tiny crowds at borrowed grounds that censure from fans or media was rare, not least because it felt somehow ungrateful. Some of those who complained of dull fare in his last couple of seasons felt it was time for a change and were left to repent at leisure when relegation immediately followed. The irony, of course, was that while Charlton slid into the Championship, Curbishley, who had effectively swapped jobs with Alan Pardew, somehow kept West Ham up.
Yet when he lifted the team to a solid 10th place last season despite an appalling run of injuries, the widespread reaction was a yawn and a groan. Part of the problem, in contrast to the previous campaign, was a poor finish à la Charlton of only two wins in the last dozen matches, and the whole season seemed to be summed up in last Saturday's opening game at home to Wigan: two early goals by Dean Ashton in an exciting start, then a falling away before hanging on for a fortunate victory.
The notion of there being no easy games in the Premier League is such a cliché that any player or manager blushes to mention it these days, but in West Ham's case it has become fact. Not since last November have they beaten any team by more than a single goal. As Mark Noble, the spiky England Under-21 midfielder, put it: "I've beaten Man United away and Arsenal at the Emirates but then lost at home to lesser teams. We had a hard time against Derby for instance last year at home [2-1]. I think every game is just as hard as another."
Curbishley, who again has six defenders missing today, cites last weekend's game as further evidence: "People are saying we've got an easy start, Wigan and Man City. But the strength of the Premier League is there for everybody to see, every game is so tough.
"Look at Man United at home to Newcastle last week. I know they were missing one or two players but it was a tough game for them. Why people are so attracted to the Premier League is because it's got the intensity week in and week out."
Intensity is what Hughes will be demanding from City today. It was a quality noticeably absent from his first home game in charge, the feeble 1-0 Uefa Cup defeat by Midtjylland which they hope to reverse in Denmark on Thursday. Losing 4-2 after a spell of crazy defending at Aston Villa last Sunday increased the feeling of unease among supporters. At least West Ham appear to be over the worst of their boardroom instability, whereas after the calm of Blackburn, Hughes has walked into a storm at Thaksin Shinawatra's City.
That has not prevented City spending £6m on the Hamburg defender Vincent Kompany, who may have a part to play this afternoon. Several strikers, including the club's record signing Jo, will not play, so a low-scoring affair is in prospect, which would hardly be a surprise: the last six encounters have produced only eight goals (and no West Ham victories). "People see us as an easy target at the moment and they are jumping on anything they can find," Hughes said. "If they can't find it, then they are making it up. It is early in the season and people have to calm down a little."
Having considered themselves unfortunate to lose at West Ham, Wigan will be in good heart ahead of their home game with Chelsea. But Blues fans are also in fine fettle, given the destruction of Portsmouth last week and the renewed hope that Robinho will sign from Real Madrid this week.
The prospect of the Brazilian arriving at the Bridge may have moved a step closer last night, when Chelsea confirmed that striker Andriy Shevchenko – after an unhappy spell in west London – had finally completed his return to Milan, subject to a medical tomorrow.
The Ukrainian cost the Blues £30m but had two disappointing seasons and will re-sign for Milan after a medical. Shev-chenko is Milan's second-most prolific goalscorer of all time with 127 goals from 208 games.
"Chelsea have agreed terms for Shevchenko to return to Milan," said Chelsea's website. "Details of the agreement will remain confidential."
Shevchenko has failed to earn a regular spot at Chelsea and scored just four League goals in the 2006-07 campaign and five last season. His first season ended prematurely when he had hernia surgery.
"We succeeded in bringing home the player who in the last 50 years has scored the most goals in our shirt," said Milan's vice-president Adriano Galliani.
"Andriy made a mistake in leaving and in the past two years he realised this is his home. He has made his financial sacrifices but at this point the only thing that matters is that he returns."
Serie A kicks off on 31 August when Milan will host Bologna.Reuse content