West Ham United 1, Wigan Athletic 1: Curbishley searches for elusive Hammers spirit

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The Independent Online

Bust-ups with players have plagued Alan Curbishley's time at West Ham. Some have been real, others down to malicious gossip. The rumour circulating at the moment is that the manager has a problem with Dean Ashton.

Curbishley and the striker were at pains to deny that – the former also used his programme notes to refute an alleged row with Craig Bellamy, although there is clear frustration from Ashton that he has not been "let loose" yet this season.

Two substitute appearances will be followed tomorrow, away to Bristol Rovers in the Carling Cup, with the 23-year-old's first start for West Ham since the FA Cup final in May last year. It has taken a year to recover from the broken ankle he sustained in his first training session for England last August and his absence has hit West Ham hard.

Indeed, it was not until Ashton's arrival as a second-half substitute against Wigan that some cohesion and focus was brought to their attack. Before that they had held the bulk of possession but, for all the effort of Bellamy, had produced little.

It is a concern for Curbishley and for his chairman, Eggert Magnusson, which explains the continued pursuit of another striker, with Nicolas Anelka the most likely arrival before the transfer window closes. Ashton, a £7.25m signing from Crewe, is itching to prove his value.

"I will try to show the manager I'm worthy of a starting place," he said.

The home support offered sustained choruses, chanting Ashton's name, before he was brought on to replace the lumbering Bobby Zamora.

"The crowd were getting restless, but I am easing him in," Curbishley said. "He has worked so hard to get to full fitness and we think we have got him where we want him now."

The same cannot be said of the rest of the team, with Scott Parker, Julien Faubert and Freddie Ljungberg absent and Lucas Neill looking far from match-fit. It has been a disappointing start to the campaign.

"I don't think we're happy at all," Curbishley said. "We've played three games, but we know we are better than this."

He was, again, quick to attack accusations that West Ham have been spendthrifts. "We have spent £28m and brought in £21m but there are about 10 teams who have spent a lot more than us," Curbishley said. That is true, except it doesn't take into account the high wages being committed and the £19m spent last January.

Wigan's manager, Chris Hutchings – once Curbishley's team-mate at Brighton – is certainly not one of those who has spent more. He can take great heart from his side's start to the season and the way they worked themselves back into this contest after a poor first half-hour. Hutchings has had his own credentials questioned, having spent six years as assistant to Paul Jewell and having suffered a traumatic, and brief, time as manager of Bradford City.

"The spotlight doesn't really bother me," he said. "People in the game know what a good job I did at Bradford and Wigan. I don't think I have anything to prove to anyone."

Wigan certainly deserved a point on Saturday. Despite West Ham's possession the visitors had the best chances, striking the post through Jason Koumas and drawing a fine save from Robert Green before the impressively hard-working Paul Scharner put them ahead with an overhead kick. West Ham replied quickly and it was a slick move, involving all three substitutes, which was finished by Lee Bowyer for his first goal in 35 games.

Afterwards Bowyer spoke of a "spirit" at West Ham which runs contrary to all the talk of discontent. But they need more of it to match their ambition.

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