Avram Grant, the West Ham United manager, misses today's game at Stoke City because he is observing the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, leaving the team under the charge of his little-known assistant Zeljko Petrovic.
Grant has selected the team but it will be Petrovic who will deliver the team talk in his polished English, and will be in charge in the Britannia Stadium dugout at lunchtime. The 44-year-old former Yugoslavia international was brought into the club by Grant in the summer, to work alongside his English assistants Paul Groves and David Coles, who were with him at Portsmouth, and the former West Ham midfielder Kevin Keen.
It is a major step up for Petrovic, whose only previous experience in charge is a short spell leading Portuguese side Boavista, where he lasted just a month and a half, and a season in the Dutch Second Division with RKC Waalwijk. He also spent a season as Martin Jol's assistant at Hamburg before Jol left to take charge at Ajax.
At the time of Petrovic's appointment, Grant said: "The aim is to take the team forward with professional, positive people and have a creative atmosphere. Zeljko Petrovic has a lot of experience and knowledge as a player and a coach."
Petrovic has been driving home the message that everyone at West Ham must pull together after the club's terrible start of four defeats out of four Premier League games. "You can be the best coach in the world but when the kit men, or the kitchen staff are not together to form one team you don't have success," Petrovic said last week. "We have to all help the manager to achieve his targets."
Grant insisted yesterday that all measures had been taken to ensure that today's extraordinary circumstances, which include also Israeli defender Tal Ben Haim missing the game, do not affect the team. "I may not be in the dugout, but the team will be ready, we have prepared well," Grant said. "I have a good staff and the team will be ready, 100 per cent, that is what is the most important.
"I will have all the input, except that I will not be in the dugout," he added. "The preparation for the team is the same, the team talks, the tactics. My staff know exactly what they need to know in any situation, and so do the team."
Grant said everyone at the club, including the players, respects his decision to honour Yom Kippur, which is something the former Chelsea manager has done all his life. "I spoke to a few of the players and they know. They respect the tradition and said, 'If you stay away we will do our job'. I really like the reaction of the players I spoke with, the owners, the board and many, many supporters. I have had a lot of emails and it is touching," Grant said.
West Ham's failure to win a single point in four Premier League games is the club's worst start to a season in their 125-year history, and has prompted growing speculation that Grant could be replaced before the next home game, against north London neighbours Tottenham Hotspur, next weekend.
German media yesterday carried reports that former Germany and Scotland manager Berti Vogts had been approached by West Ham concerning possibly replacing Grant. The manager accepted he must carry the can for West Ham's lack of points. "I always accept responsibility. I've been in England for five years and never put the responsibility elsewhere, even in very difficult situations," Grant said.
"I have been coaching since I was 18 and a half. In three years I will have been doing it for 40 years. I don't know any other life other than being under pressure. Even though we have zero points I am very confident in what we are doing and I still believe we can do the right things for the club. But it is a pressure I live with all my life. I don't know any other life. Maybe one day I will try."
Defenders (and strikers, and midfielders) of the faith
Unlike in America, where every other athlete claims God is behind his success, UK-based footballers tend to keep their faith low-profile. None since Peter Knowles, the ex-Wolves striker who retired at 24 to become a Jehovah's Witness in 1970, have given up the game for their beliefs, but for several past and present Premier League players religion is a key part of their lives.
The Chelsea striker converted to Islam in 2004 taking the Muslim name Abdul-Salam Bilal. While at Manchester City he was upset at having to break his fast and drink water during Ramadan to fulfil a drugs test.
Chelsea's Israeli midfielder is unlikely to play against Blackpool tomorrow as he will be weakened by fasting during Yom Kippur. Blackpool's Dekel Keinan does intend to play.
The former West Brom and Derby defender, now with Burton Albion, formed "Faith and Football" with Linvoy Primus in 2002. The pair walked the Great Wall of China in 2005 to raise funds for children's charities.
A devout Christian the Fulham defender prays on the pitch before matches.
The ex-Portsmouth defender is a born-again Christian who founded a prayer group at the club and is heavily committed to charity work.
A practising Muslim since childhood. At Arsenal Touré used to go to the mosque with Bacary Sagna and Abou Diaby.Reuse content