A doorbell rings in rural Essex. Carrying a package for Christian Dailly, the postman strikes up a conversation about West Ham United's imminent return to the Premiership. "We'll stay up for three seasons," he announces. This sounds oddly specific to the club captain, who has re-signed for three years. "Three seasons," continues the postie. "Autumn, winter and spring."
Gallows humour aside - and Dailly recounts the episode with self-mocking mirth - a section of West Ham's support often seems determined to remain disaffected. Even as the Millennium Stadium became a bouncing mass of claret and blue after the play-off final in May, phone-ins were besieged by callers criticising the manager, Alan Pardew.
The 31-year-old Dailly, who made a cameo appearance against Preston North End that day after a season of fighting injury and coping with a family tragedy, understands the down side of the fans' fervour. He saw Berti Vogts ("a tough wee guy") subjected to similar vilification when the German was manager of Scotland. However, he has "nothing but admiration" for Pardew's resilience in the face of adversity.
"The standards demanded by the West Ham crowd are so high because they remember people like Bobby Moore, and how the club has always tried to play the right way," reasons Dailly. "They're also very emotional fans. There's no hiding place, home or away, with them there."
But a substantial number will not get off Pardew's case. One even announced over the airwaves - within an hour of the final whistle in Cardiff - that he hoped West Ham would start badly to make a change of manager more likely.
Dailly, who is "pretty optimistic" about the campaign which starts with a visit by his previous club, Blackburn Rovers, shakes his head. "I can't imagine anyone handling the flak he took last season. Yet he never changed his ways and always kept confidence in what he did.
"One great thing he has done at West Ham is try to create an atmosphere of everybody pulling together. How your manager behaves rubs off on the players. I've worked under people who got really panicky, but [Pardew] is always very level-headed. I have total respect for him."
The feeling is mutual. Not all managers would want a key player - especially one who had been out for nine months - to spend several days stood in a muddy field having his ears pounded by guitars as Dailly did on his annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury (where his highlights included The Killers and - wait for it - Chas and Dave). "He thinks it's typical of me," grins the player, "but he knows I like to do my own thing."
More tellingly, Pardew treated Dailly with sensitivity when his father, Dan, died last October aged 56. "I'm the oldest of five children so I had to be up in Dundee for my mother, to organise Dad's affairs, help with the funeral and so on. It was made easier by the fact that I was injured, but I won't forget the understanding the manager and the club showed me at a difficult time. It's not always like that in football."
Dan had been diagnosed with cancer in August, around the time Dailly suffered a knee injury that was followed by a string of pulled muscles. "He looked as healthy as me. He just felt tired and had a pain in his shoulder. Two months later he was gone.
"He was a massive influence on my career, from organising my teams when I was a kid to driving from Dundee to Derby and Blackburn when I played for them. Once he drove all the way to West Ham, arriving at midnight the night before and returning after the match. I've got flights in my contract, but he didn't like flying so he wouldn't use them.
"My pride in my country also came from him. I remember sitting with him to watch Scotland play in Moldova on TV. He was so ill he couldn't stay awake more than 20 seconds or speak properly. But he was a Scot to the last and kept himself alive to watch the game. His brain still worked - I remember him pointing when the Italy-Belarus score came on the screen - but the cancer had hold of his body. I kissed him goodnight and the next day he died.
"The whole experience has made me calmer and stronger. It has made me determined to enjoy my football and express myself more. It's about winning, of course, but it's also about enjoying it."
A week after helping end West Ham's two-year exile from the top flight, Dailly was again summoned from the bench early in Scotland's return game against Moldova. He had not started a game since August but stresses, with tongue tickling cheek, that he kept up his fitness by "breaking all the records in the gym". Walter Smith, who had by then succeeded Vogts , sent him on at wing-back and Dailly promptly materialised at centre-forward to score.
"I thought of Dad instantly. After, the first message on my mobile was from Berti saying: 'Great to see Scotland win. Well done for scoring'. That was a measure of the man. The season ended on a very bubbly note for me. I was the only player who didn't want it to finish."
That said, the mature professional in him was glad of the opportunity to rest before the rigours of pre-season - and for the time it allowed him to help raise funds and awareness for Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre* in Dundee, part of a group of drop-in centres for sufferers and their loved ones.
Now the Premiership awaits and, after West Ham's unbeaten pre-season, the adrenalin is pumping again. After quipping that Pardew plans an 8-1-1 formation (their recruits have included four defenders and two goalkeepers), Dailly describes a resolute mood inside the camp.
"It's probably the most athletic group of players I've ever worked with. That's one reason we should be positive - having good athletes is a strong starting point in this league. Another is the way finished last season. In the final 12 games we had progressed to the stage where we were the better side every time.
"There's a stigma attached to promoted clubs. They don't usually have as much money to spend and sometimes need to re-shape their whole team just to survive. I think our manager was reasonably satisfied with the basis of the squad - young players like Anton Ferdinand and Elliott Ward gained consistency as their experience grew when they had to be thrown in - although he knew he had to increase the depth.
"I liked the way West Brom survived against the odds by giving it a right good go. From my own career, I look at Derby as an example of what a club entering the Premiership can achieve. We'd just gone up when I came from Dundee United but we did well in the first few seasons.
"The guys there were the most dedicated I've worked with. Jim Smith had an image of wine and cigars but he wasn't daft: the players he bought always wanted to be last away from the gym or first in any race. Jim had good organisation, too, with a great coach in Steve McClaren.
"It's the kind of thing I see developing at West Ham. Our manager is trying to create a young, vibrant side with a core of experienced people like myself, Teddy [Sheringham] and Tomas [Repka] and good, professional attitudes. The similarities with Derby are striking"
Blackburn, who once paid Derby £5.3m for Dailly, represent a tough but winnable opener, and West Ham do not face any of the three title favourites in their first six games. While supporters no doubt scanned the fixture lists for Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, the Scot takes a surprisingly detached view. "I never think: 'Oh, we're at Highbury, or Old Trafford; that's special', or 'We're at Crewe, or Brighton; I can't get myself up for this one'.
"That's why all those stories about Glenn Roeder [Pardew's predecessor] supposedly refusing to let us change at Rotherham were such a travesty. It simply didn't happen like that. I put in the same whether it's Chelsea away or a friendly at a little non-League club. From a pure playing perspective, I'm happy to play anywhere."
The same applies to positions, Dailly having performed almost everywhere for club and country. Nominally a defender, he was in midfield against Osasuna in West Ham's final friendly.
"I went through a phase of thinking I needed to specialise, probably at centre-back, but I've realised I'm the type that's going to be used in various positions. I think I may have a number of roles this season, and I'm really looking forward to that." One, it is safe to assume, will be as defender of the manager.Reuse content