One of the managers at Upton Park this Sunday may regret the phone call they shared on Tuesday. Alan Curbishley, pondering West Ham's offer to him to succeed Alan Pardew, rang Sir Alex Ferguson for advice. The managerial Godfather told him to grab the opportunity. Yesterday Curbishley signed a £7m, three-and-a-half-year deal and his first task is to try to derail Manchester United's championship charge.
"I was just seeking his advice on a couple of things," Curbishley said. "I said, 'West Ham are third from bottom', he said 20 years ago [when Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford], Man United were. He said, 'What you've got is an opportunity to go into a club and be successful."
"I also talked to Alex about the difficulty of going to a club mid-season. In an ideal world you come in in the summer with the opportunity to prepare pre-season and bring in your own players. It's not an easy situation going into a club midstream, but because it's this club it changed my mind."
In the last half-sentence was Curbishley's recognition that this appointment was special because he was coming home to the club he was associated with for the first 21 of his 49 years. But there was a realism too. He said: "I am getting quite emotional. If people had said to me when I was 16, joining the club as an apprentice, that one day I would be the manager, I would have thought it was impossible. It is a privilege to be here.
"It just happened so quickly. I had something planned today to go somewhere, Christmas was all arranged at relatives, that's all put on hold. When they said they wanted me, it was a big pull. West Ham is part of my life and my family. My wife comes from the Boleyn [the area the ground is named after], that's where she was born. I was born in Forest Gate, brought up in Canning Town, I went to school on the Barking Road, I played for the club. That's great, it looks great, sounds great; but it ain't going to keep us up.
"A lot of people put two and two together - West Ham need a new manager, I'm out there, he's West Ham born and bred, blah, blah, blah. But at the end of it we've got to go and produce it out there. We've got to pick some wins up."
That is the bottom line as Eggert Magnusson, the chairman, made clear when he outlined the reasoning behind the sudden axing of Alan Pardew. Magnusson said: "I was really shocked after [West Ham lost at home to] Wigan and then in Bolton [where they lost 4-0 on Saturday], both by the results and how the team was playing. There was a lack of motivation.
"This is a very important time. We have five matches before New Year's Day, then there is the January window. I knew I had to make a difficult decision. I took that decision in the best interests of the club."
Curbishley was given an insight into Magnusson's approach almost before Pardew had cleared his desk. "On Monday afternoon Eggert made contact and it suddenly snowballed. I found out how how quickly Eggert likes to move. He does not stand about. He was bossing the situation."
Under next season's television deal, surviving in the Premiership is worth around £10m more than winning the Champions' League. Relegation, to an investor like Magnusson and the club's majority owner, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, is not an option. Curbishley will be given between £15m and £20m to spend in January. Not that he is writing off the players at the club. "I'm convinced we have the players here to get us out of trouble," he said. "I know that there's been a bit of criticism of them because of what they done last year and everybody is hoping we respond now. I don't think their season has ever really got going. It was a big blow losing [Dean] Ashton [who should be fit next month]. They have had a lot more injuries and the results don't help. It is a young side who were on the crest of a wave last year, they were galvanised from one week to the next.
"But the Premiership is a tough league. You cannot take it for granted at all. Perhaps that's what happened here. Last year they had that newly promoted hunger. You look at Watford and Sheffield United. They take a defeat and on the Monday morning they are already looking forward to the next game because it is all new and fresh. When you have been in there before perhaps it is a bit different."
Early speculation suggests he will seek to sign Darren Bent, whom he took the The Valley, but Charlton would be reluctant to sell their leading scorer to a relegation rival.
Everton are preparing a January move for West Ham's captain, Nigel Reo-Coker. David Moyes has identified the midfielder as his main target for the January transfer window. The Everton manager, however, may have to sell both James Beattie and Simon Davies to finance the deal.
Mervyn Day, Curbishley's first-team coach at Charlton, has joined, while already at West Ham are Keith Peacock, his assistant at The Valley, and Steve Brown, the reserve team coach. Kevin Keen, Pardew's coach, remains at Upton Park, for now.
When Curbishley took over at Charlton in 1990 they were impoverished and homeless. This, he noted, is "a completely different situation. I've spoken to a lot of people and they all keep coming back to the same thing: this club can go places." In the short term the only aim is to avoid going to the Championship.
Three steps to safety: Curbishley's key areas for improvement
Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano
The Argentine pair arrived unfit, especially Tevez. They also could leave in the summer, which would make any manager reluctant to build his team around them. However, they are potentially two of the best players in the League. West Ham need instant results, so Curbishley needs to find a way to integrate them into the team.
A team in trouble must stop conceding goals. West Ham have only kept two clean sheets this season. Injuries in central defence, especially to Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon, and changes in selection, have contributed to this malaise, but the players have not been defending well as a team. Curbishley may adopt a 4-5-1 formation, which will not please supporters but should make the Hammers harder to beat.
West Ham are a youthful side and the confidence of young players is more fragile than that of experienced professionals. There is talent in the squad, but the run of defeats has sapped their belief and, to judge from rumours from the training ground, team spirit has suffered as a consequence. Curbishley will need to work on the squad individually and collectively, but he knows nothing builds confidence like results.
What awaits the new man
Next six games:
17 Dec Man Utd (h). 23 Dec Fulham (a). 26 Dec Portsmouth (h). 30 Dec Man City (h). 1 Jan 2007 Reading (a). 6 Jan Brighton (h) (FA Cup)
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