James speaks right language to lift Keegan

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The Independent Football

David James wants to see his new manager laughing again. When you're smiling, it seems, the whole squad smiles with you. But Manchester City's fortunes over the past couple of months have tested even Kevin Keegan's famously happy-go-lucky demeanour. A flu virus has not helped and the most recent image has been of a bunged-up, bobble-hatted figure on the touchline, tracksuit zipped up as far as it will go, turning away in frustration at another wasted scoring opportunity or defensive howler.

There have been plenty of both. Since the start of November, City have sagged from fifth to 15th in the Premiership, winning none of their last 11 League games, and going out of the Uefa Cup and Carling Cup. David Seaman was forced to retire after damaging his troublesome shoulder again in a 4-2 humbling at Portsmouth, and in last Sunday's FA Cup tie against Tottenham a rookie replacement unwittingly prevented the first home win at the City of Manchester Stadium in any competition since mid-October.

Enter James, England goalkeeper and would-be psychologist. Mission: to keep some clean sheets and cheer up Kevin Keegan. "I like Kev when he smiles," James said on Friday as rain beat against the windows of City's training centre. "When he's smiling things are good. I want to do well to have him smiling more often."

The smiles were thin-lipped all round after James's debut, when a typical piece of indecisive defending in City's back-four allowed Blackburn an equalising goal. Not surprisingly, the goalkeeper has been working on verbal communication with his Chinese, Irish, French and German back line, usually in the international language of football: "Communication's key in any industry, especially when people can't see you. If there's been a problem it can only be because people haven't been talking. I was always told to shout. You don't even have to make sense as long as they know you're there. One of the lads was laughing at me the other day because I was shouting 'Oui, oui' to get the ball off somebody."

It would be a trick worth trying against Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and their countrymen this afternoon at Arsenal, where James the positive thinker sees only "the opportunity to beat the best side playing at their best, at their place". Although he is encouraged by his personal sports psychologist, Keith Power, to accentuate the positive, it is difficult to forget going to Highbury with West Ham last January and losing 3-1 to a Henry hat-trick. "It could have been seven or eight," James said. "When we drew 2-2 at home to them, he hit a 35-yard shot which didn't seem to be going very fast and then it was in. He's effortless. But I don't want to say too many nice things. I've saved shots of his, I'm looking forward to the challenge. If you can't look forward to playing against the best, you're in the wrong industry."

The chance to do so again week in and week out was a factor in leaving West Ham and the Nationwide League last month when City went for him on Seaman's advice. He had shown commendable loyalty after relegation and been rewarded in the same currency by Sven Goran Eriksson, who promised his position as England's No 1 would not be adversely affected ahead of Euro 2004.

"Mr Eriksson said it wasn't essential to be in the Premiership. But I have to say since I've been here doing shooting sessions you come up against some very good strikers, and that's just in one side. The majority of the quality is going to be in the Premiership, so it's going to give me that sharpening- up I'll need if I'm going to take part in the tournament."

To be relegated again this season might be considered carelessness rather than misfortune - calamity, indeed - but positive thinking does not allow such thoughts even with your team so perilously placed and Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United as opponents in the next six weeks. This is a man, after all, who was still insisting last April: "We won't go down, relegation's not an option."

His take on the League table this time is: "There's one distinct difference to a year ago, which is that West Ham were in the bottom three. Manchester City aren't. It's very destructive to focus on something so negative. Our focus is not on a relegation battle, it's on having a good run."

His former West Ham manager Glenn Roeder talks of goalkeeping, with no disrespect, as "an old man's position". From schoolboy athlete and callow youth at Watford, James, 33, has slowly matured into it down the seasons, via seven Spice Boy years at Liverpool and two more considered ones at Aston Villa. "The moves have all had specific reasons. You can just drift through life doing certain things, good, bad or indifferent, and then when reality hits, you've got to take note and make changes. One thing I did when I went to Villa was make changes - Paul Barron [goalkeeping coach] was the initial influence - and that's followed on through West Ham and now. I know where I am and what I need to do and hopefully that's all going to help me play better."

He will need to over the next few weeks if Keegan is to start smiling again.