Why Gianfranco Zola must be desperate to see Joleon Lescott join the Manchester City revolution
Gianfranco Zola must be praying that Everton eventually relent and allow Joleon Lescott to go to Manchester City, because it is all that is preventing a bid for Matthew Upson. Everton’s manager David Moyes has shown admirable resistance in the face of the City juggernaut; whether West Ham could summon up the same courage is doubtful.
Even someone who had digested merely a potted history of West Ham United Football Club would be aware that when it comes to selling gifted talents, there are few competitors. Should an offer be made, it is likely West Ham would be gleefully shouting ‘Kerching!’ down to phone to the banker before the ink had even dried on the cheque.
Could West Ham afford to sell Upson? Perhaps more pertinently, could they afford not to sell their most important defender, from both a football and financial perspective. The prophets of doom are circling Upton Park, with headlines such as ‘West Ham’s future in fresh doubt’ painting a worrying picture of their current predicament. What a happy situation for the Premier League that one of its member clubs barely has a sieve to piss in because the Icelandic economy is bust.
So West Ham may soon have a difficult choice to make, although if City do ask if Upson is available, the response on the end of the line is more likely to be met with ‘How much?’ rather than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Sources already suggest £15m for the 30-year-old would do the trick, which is a worrying state of affairs given that City are still outwardly set upon unsettling Lescott. Well done Mark Hughes for planning ahead though.
Looking at it from a financial point of view, and the overwhelming conclusion is that West Ham cannot afford to hang on to Upson. But ask from a footballing standpoint (how depressing that it’s impossible to judge which aspect is more important), and you may find various Hammers looking for a comfortable fence to sit on.
As City themselves found out last season, a football team is all about balance, and it is this truth that now informs Hughes’s shopping list. His side was blessed with an array of attacking talent, Robinho the jewel, but City could only finish 10th, so beset were they by defensive problems. Stinginess will be a necessity if City are to break into the elite.
Imbalance afflicts West Ham now. Upson is the key man in a competent defence, and although some feel that his departure could be offset by his current colleagues, that notion under-estimates his influence. In a side not overflowing with goals from all sources, West Ham’s cohesion in defence grew as the season trundled on, and that, as much as anything else, lifted them from possible relegation candidates in December to Europa League contenders in May.
The coltish James Tomkins impressed hugely last season after coming into the side in February, and while it is tempting to assume he could pick up the mantle left by Upson, he is still wet behind the ears. When he was first introduced by Alan Curbishley in 2008, he played alongside Anton Ferdinand, not ideal for a youngster learning his trade. Tomkins appears to have eradicated the error which blighted his game, the vulnerability to the long ball over his head, and he is quick, strong and positionally aware. But good defences are still not built around youth.
The alternatives to Upson are James Collins, Danny Gabbidon and Jonathan Spector, and in that respect West Ham are well stocked. All are competent in their own right, yet none lead as Upson does. Each has their flaws, Collins for example susceptible to a quick-footed forward, and all have had battles against injury. Gabbidon has not played for the first team since December 2007. Upheaval in the defence may occur too often and is this a far from ideal foil for Tomkins.
It is in attack where West Ham lag though. Carlton Cole is the only fit striker, with Dean Ashton injured, Freddie Sears on loan, and David Di Michele and Diego Tristan departed. There are rumours surrounding moves for Eidur Gudjohnsen and Luca Toni, but have been for some time, and perhaps selling Upson would move negotiations for this pair on. That may be the dilemma facing Zola, whether to weaken one strong part of his team in order to bolster another.
Yet team spirit played a big part in last season’s success, and the experienced Upson is a leader. With Lucas Neill gone, Upson becomes doubly important, particularly for a team with so many youngsters. This could undoubtedly damage morale and players such as Robert Green, who now has an England place to fight for, could also demand a transfer. There would certainly be no shortage of suitors.
In some ways, Everton are in a more precarious position than West Ham. They can offer Lescott a guaranteed start, European football and another push for fifth place, but City are ready to usurp them now. Selling to their rich rivals may be suicidal for Everton, but West Ham have already demonstrated that they cannot compete with City when Craig Bellamy was sold in January. Zola’s cheery grin is famous but he may need to take heed of Moyes’s steely-eyed glare if City are to blink first this time.