Roeder cast as mettle detector

The Hammers urgently need some iron in their souls. Steve Tongue talks to their manager

Wednesday 29 January 2014 03:04
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The old joke about West Ham United coming down with the Christmas decorations needs updating. Maybe something about fading with the summer suntan? For the third year running the side have entered September bottom of the Premiership and Glenn Roeder, the manager of 15 months, is desperate to do something about it, starting with next Wednesday night's game at home to West Bromwich Albion.

His proposals are greater mental toughness, which may require the services of a sports psychologist, and a possible change to the open style of play that has charmed spectators everywhere for the best part of 50 years. Last season, those most charmed were opposing supporters when the Hammers came a' visiting, offering up four, five and seven goals to teams as modestly endowed in attack as Charlton, Everton and Blackburn respectively.

Yet at Upton Park, all three of those sides were beaten without managing a goal between them, making West Ham's final home record of 12 wins and three defeats exactly the opposite of their record on the road.

When the maths were done, it all added up to a slightly flattering, but nonetheless commendable, seventh place to start Roeder's Premiership career. This time, a 4-0 defeat at Newcastle on the opening weekend started all the old alarm bells ringing, and, worse, after Arsenal had snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat, the 2-0 home loss to Charlton set a whole new set clanging. Has the combination of mental weakness and defensive frailty now spread to home ground?

Like Middlesbrough's Steve McClaren, who might have been sitting in his chair now, but turned down the opportunity to succeed Harry Redknapp last summer, Roeder is a keen student of the mental aspect of sport. "Some people are born with mental toughness," he believes. "They get over defeats quickly and bounce back. Others are not so strong and look to other people to do it for them. You can only try to improve people like that by talking to them and trying to get inside their brain – which is not always easy in some cases. There's a saying, 'Men die of fear but live off confidence', which is pretty accurate."

He has used a sports psychologist from Lancashire on a part-time basis in the past and is currently looking for another, based closer to home. An ability to play centre-half might be a useful additional qualification. As for himself, Roeder has never shared the doubts of those supporters and pundits who bemoaned his appointment as illustrating the club's supposed lack of ambition: "Privately, I've always believed I could do the job. I'm not a person to bang my own drum but I've got a lot of confidence in myself. Now we need to start winning some games again."

If that means drawing in the horns away from Upton Park, tightening up in a 4-5-1 formation, restricting some of his more creative players, or even dropping them occasionally, so be it. "Sometimes away from home we've been far too cavalier. We got involved in some ridiculous games last season, like the 4-4 draw at Charlton: 4-3 up with a few minutes left and a player who shall remain nameless tried an extravagant crossfield ball that lost us possession and led to an equaliser. From a professional point of view it was very poor – I wasn't looking to win the game 5-3. And it's not acceptable to say that's how it's always been at West Ham for years and years. We've got to find a more solid look."

Roeder hopes that the signing of Gary Breen, the Republic of Ireland central defender, and Edouard Cissé, a holding midfielder, will help bring that about before long. At the other end of the pitch, there will need to be some rotation of the strikers once the mercurial Paolo Di Canio returns to fitness; Jermain Defoe, surely a future England international, is ready to start more games, but Frédéric Kanouté, significantly, is mentioned by the manager as "the one striker we have got with real physical presence".

Like every other Premiership manager, West Ham's must now go with what he has until 1 January, crossing his fingers along the way for the health of his players and acknowledging that depth of squad is yet another area in which the top six clubs in the country are way ahead of the rest: "Finishing seventh was an excellent achievement for us and surprised plenty of people. But we were 11 points behind that top group, who are basically all driven by cash, all big investors.

"They all have big enough squads and can handle a run of injuries; the rest of us are probably two players short."

Roeder has, though, noticed one pleasing effect of the transfer window: "Since last Saturday, not a single agent has rung me. There are normally half a dozen every day." They will be back by the new year. So, you suspect, will West Ham.

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