Scholarly Spector says Hammers must learn lessons

West Ham's Mr Versatile claims club can turn season around by releasing safety valve during crucial Christmas calendar
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You're 17 years old, playing football in Chicago but considering what to study at university, when Manchester United come knocking and offer you a contract. It does not take too much thinking about. Or as Jonathan Spector puts it: "It's pretty much a no-brainer. I thought I was going to have a hard time convincing my parents because I'd always planned on going to university. Education was always important in my household so that was always the plan. Then this came along and threw it all upside down. But my parents have been extremely supportive."

Perhaps a sporting family background swung it. Spector's grandfather had been a professional basketball player for the Boston Celtics, nicknamed "the original Celtic", as he was the first to sign a contract for that franchise. Anyway, seven years on, here is Spector sitting at Upton Park and reflecting on a fifth season at West Ham United, one that was looking grim both personally and for the club until the manager Avram Grant suddenly asked him to start playing in midfield during training. Versatility, he knows, can be a curse as much as a blessing but having been picked for only one League and one Cup game since Grant took over in the summer, there did not seem to be much to lose.

So it was that he was thrown into the team in his new central midfield role in the Carling Cup against United, of all opponents, and ended up not only helping to inflict a 4-0 defeat on his old club but scoring what were officially his first two goals in English football. Kept in the side ever since, Spector has reason to believe that he will have a part to play in a crucial run of matches for the bottom club, who go to Fulham today and then have home games with Everton and Wolves.

Things are looking up, then, after a summer at the World Cup in which the United States coach Bob Bradley did not use him for a single minute, followed by a four-month period in which he must have thought that Grant was similarly unenamoured. Yet he comes across as a resilient figure, who sees every setback as a new challenge. "It was a massive disappointment not to play a minute at the World Cup after playing in so many games leading up to it," he admits, "but the good thing about football is that the seasons are long, the off-seasons are very short, so I didn't have much time to be disappointed."

He takes a similarly mature view of his time at Old Trafford: "I was young at the time, I started in the first team at 18 at left-back, then Gabriel Heinze came back from an injury. I'd done alright but he was always gonna play in front of me. I spent one year on loan at Charlton, which was good for me, I learnt quite a bit playing in those games but I didn't want to be continually going on loan, so I thought it was time to move on."

Moving to Alan Pardew's West Ham in 2006, he was joining a club that had almost won the FA Cup and then finished ninth in the Premier League. Most seasons since then have been more of a struggle and this has been the hardest of all, spent on the bottom of the table almost from the start. "It's disappointing the way results have been and the position we're in. It's nice to be playing but we'd prefer to be getting the results that we need.

"You have to deal with being on the bottom of the table, which can be difficult, but we're confident in the fact that we have good players individually and it's just a matter of time before we really gel as a team. We've had some injuries, a new manager this season, and it's taken a bit longer than we would have liked, but there's certainly games where there's evidence we can play really well, the Tottenham game [1-0] and the Manchester United game. It's just a matter of doing it on a more consistent basis."

The next week would seem to offer an opportunity to start, and Spector refuses to be put off by that much-loved statistic that the team sitting on the bottom at Christmas almost always go down: "It's just a statistic. Each season's different and there's not a massive gap between us and safety. There's so many games over the holiday period, that psychologically we have the feeling we could turn the season round in a very short period of time. Normally you have to wait a week, whereas now within a week we could be climbing the table, which is what we intend to do. Every game's winnable and every game's extremely important for us."

Uncertainty continues to surround Grant, for whom this week could be more critical than the team. Spector, pleasingly, is prepared to accept that players have a responsibility in those circumstances: "It's tough for managers if the team's not playing well. It may not be the manager's fault, it may be down to form of individual players. It's a difficult job. I don't envy it.

"We have a responsibility as players to do our best for ourselves, the club, the manager. When we're not doing it, we know a lot of times it's gonna be the manager who gets the rap and it's hard knowing he's having to take a fall. He is more reserved than a lot of managers but he's always thinking, cerebral, an intelligent person. There's something very positive about him, he never criticises any of the players in the media and that helps the players respect him a great deal."

It is time to start translating that respect into points.


Aston Villa v Tottenham (5.30pm, Sky Sports 1)

With trips to Manchester City and Chelsea up next, Villa need something here or they could go into the new year perilously close to the relegation places. Their task will be more difficult if Rafael van der Vaart is fit for Spurs.

Last season: Aston Villa 1 Tottenham 1. This season: Tottenham 2 Aston Villa 1.

Blackburn Rovers v Stoke

Replacing a sacked manager who was popular with the players is never easy and Steve Kean has a job on his hands at Blackburn. Stoke will try to take advantage in what will not be one of the week's prettier fixtures.

Last season: Blackburn 0 Stoke 0. This season: Stoke 1 Blackburn 0.

Blackpool v Liverpool

Blackpool are optimistic the game will go ahead, offering the opportunity of completing a double over Liverpool. Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are both fit; but then they played in the astonishing Anfield defeat as well.

Last season: n/a. This season: Liverpool 1 Blackpool 2.

Bolton Wanderers v West Bromwich Albion

It must be unheard of for Albion to reach Christmas in mid-table. Yet they are still only six points above the bottom three. Leading scorer Peter Odemwingie is due to return against a Bolton side going well under Owen Coyle.

Last season: n/a. This season: West Bromwich 1 Bolton 1.

Everton v Birmingham City

Victory at Birmingham in October was Everton's first of the season, but the fine win at Eastlands last Monday suggested they can finally start to climb the table. Steven Pienaar could return against a side short of goals.

Last season: Everton 1 Birmingham 1. This season: Birmingham 0 Everton 2.

Fulham v West Ham United (12pm, Sky Sports 1)

Only two wins each is a poor return for this pair but each will fancy a third one here, which would leave the losers in serious trouble. Fulham's prospects and scoring potential would be improved if Moussa Dembélé is fit.

Last season: Fulham 3 West Ham 2. This season: West Ham 1 Fulham 1.

Manchester United v Sunderland

Only a late own goal denied Sunderland victory here last season and they return in confident mood. But Lee Cattermole is suspended again and Danny Welbeck cannot play against his parent club.

Last season: Man Utd 2 Sunderland 2. This season: Sunderland 0 Man Utd 0.

Newcastle United v Manchester City

Passing up the chance to spend Christmas on top of the tree by losing at home to Everton, City face Newcastle and Andy Carroll without Kolo Touré after his sending-off. Nigel de Jong is back.

Last season: n/a. This season: Man City 2 Newcastle 1.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Wigan Athletic

A crucial day down at the bottom as Fulham meet West Ham while this pair square up at Molineux. A third straight home win would be a huge one for Wolves, though it will have to be achieved without striker Kevin Doyle.

Last season: n/a. This season: Wigan 2 Wolves 0.

Tomorrow: Arsenal v Chelsea (8pm, Sky Sports 1)

Arsenal hope Abou Diaby's return will provide some of the physical power they have lacked in this fixture, above all in last November's meeting. This could be a defining game for their season.

Last season: Arsenal 0 Chelsea 3. This season: Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0.

Steve Tongue