Sunday, April 23, 2006


Matthew Etherington: Posh boy made good

c+p the Independent

Matthew Etherington: Posh boy made good
The FA Cup semi-final Interview
Published: 22 April 2006

Matthew Etherington happily declares he is a dying breed. "People call me an old-fashioned winger and that's fine by me. I've certainly got no problem with that," he says. "There aren't that many wingers out there so it's probably a good thing. We're a rarity." All the rarer because it is the left flank that Etherington occupies. He should be there tomorrow for West Ham United in the FA Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough at Villa Park, having shaken off the calf injury that has meant he missed the past two Premiership games.

Middlesbrough, in Stewart Downing, have another practitioner of the winger's art. "It's demanding. Your energy levels need to be high. It's physically tough and you are expected to create things as well," Etherington explains when asked for a job description. "But it's a responsibility that I like. When I came here it was made clear that was my role, to create opportunities for the side, and I've done that ever since. So it's a nice pressure. Certainly you have to perform every week."

It also takes confidence to do so and, although Etherington admits to being " my own worst critic", he also knows that, yet again, he has enjoyed a successful season for West Ham with 103 more crosses, 86 more dribbles and more assists than any of his team-mates. And he is not afraid to say so. " If I've had a bad game or a good game, I don't need anyone else to tell me," Etherington says. "That's just the way I am and the way I will always be. The first half of this season I thought I was doing OK but I knew there was more in there and I've produced that in the second half. That means a lot to me. I wanted to prove a few things to a few people."

This is not the first FA Cup semi-final in which Etherington has been involved. Five years ago, aged 19, he was a member of the Tottenham Hotspur squad that was beaten - far more convincingly than the 2-1 scoreline suggests - at Old Trafford by Arsenal. It was Glenn Hoddle's first game in charge. "I was a bit younger and wasn't as involved as I am now," Etherington recalls. "I feel that now I'm an important part of the team and that maybe at Tottenham I was a bit of a spare part." It was a feeling he never managed to shake off during the three and a half years he spent at White Hart Lane.

Etherington signed on New Year's Eve 1999, along with Simon Davies from Peterborough United. Here was the new millennium at Spurs - two young, thrusting, hungry wingers, with the former cast as having "a touch of the 'Giggsy' [Ryan Giggs] about him" and ready to usurp David Ginola. Even though it was the "never knowingly undersold" Barry Fry who made that declaration, it was expected that Etherington, with his close control and pace, would deliver. But he had been acquired under George Graham and Hoddle did not want him.

"Erm, I'd better be careful," Etherington says when asked as to why things did not work out. "Well, sometimes you go to a club, and it happens all over the country, and the manager sees you in his plans but obviously there's going to be a player there in front of you and if he is fit he's going to play. For me that player was Christian Ziege. I always knew that, no matter how well I did, if he was fit he was going to play. It was as simple as that really, so that's why I moved on. I wanted to leave. I'll never regret leaving Tottenham. I wanted to play football."

Ziege was part of Hoddle's ill-fated, short-term strategy of loading his team with older, experienced - and highly paid - players to try to secure European football. Ironically, the club have since executed a complete about-turn under Martin Jol. They want young - and preferably English - players of promise. Players like Etherington. Unfortunately, they had already let him go to West Ham, who were by then following a similar policy. It is all the more unfortunate as Jol, who likes to play with width, has been desperately searching for a left-winger to fill the void, and bid £7m for Downing, for example.

"I dropped down to the Championship," Etherington, now 24, says of his move - a barely reported makeweight at the time - which sent Frédéric Kanouté, at a cost of £3.5m, in the opposite direction. It was the summer of 2003 and West Ham, newly relegated from the Premiership, appeared to be imploding as they conducted a fire sale of their star players. Etherington saw it differently.

"It was a great opportunity and an opportunity to improve my game and I've done that 10, 20 times since I moved from Tottenham," he says. " I'm a much, much better player now and that's because I'm playing week in, week out and that's what I needed to do. Leaving Tottenham was probably the best decision of my football career." Maybe there's a touch of bitterness - "You need a run of games to get stronger," he says, clearly feeling Spurs were not brave enough to allow him that chance - but given his success it does not sound like that.

Not that things started well at West Ham, as he was sent off at Norwich City, then taken off on a stretcher at Sunderland, his troubles seem to capture those of the team under the quickly under-fire new manager, Alan Pardew. "They were testing times," says Etherington, who turned it round to such an extent that he was voted player of the year - the first to be selected as the club's best in his debut season since the goalkeeper Lawrie Leslie 43 years ago. Still, West Ham lost to Crystal Palace in the play-off final.

"This club is a Premiership club and no one wants to be in the Championship," Etherington explains. "This club shouldn't be there. " So, if anything, last season became even more stressful. " Everyone was under pressure and it was hard going out there some days at Upton Park. The fans were expecting us to win two or three nil and if we weren't, then they would let you know about it, which is fair enough. We understood their frustrations as we were as frustrated as they were. It was difficult. But we've come out the other end." Even so he concedes that " who knows what would have happened if we hadn't beaten Preston in the play-off final".

Unsurprisingly, Etherington has great faith in Pardew. "The progress this club has made since it has been under the manager is unbelievable. He's great to play under. He's been brilliant to me. He's got a good relationship with all the players and he's got us all on his side. West Ham are lucky to have him. We managed to scrape our way into the Premiership and we haven't looked back. We look a good side and on our day we can give anyone a game."

Still, at the start of the season many tipped them to go straight back down. "And, yeah, of course you use that as motivation," says Etherington. "You don't want to hear that about you, that you are not good enough to play in the Premiership. Everyone was writing us off but we've proved that wrong. We were always quietly confident. We're now in the top half of the table, with a realistic chance of getting that seventh spot for Europe and we're in the FA Cup semi-final and if we win that we're in Europe anyway. So no one could argue that it's not been a successful season."

Even so, the question he was asked most often by West Ham's own fans before Christmas was: "Do you think we'll stay up?" Etherington, however, agrees with the theory that "maybe with the side and the players we have got it's easier for us to play at this level. We always seemed to do better in the Championship against the better sides. Against the lower sides we seemed to struggle for whatever reason. Maybe it's helped us."

Maybe, also, it explains why West Ham have enjoyed such a good Cup run. They have faced - apart from Norwich - Premiership teams. Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City have all been defeated in a challenging series of ties. "Tough games," says Etherington, "so we are here on merit."

It is West Ham's first semi-final since 1991 - also at Villa Park - when Tony Gale was harshly dismissed against Nottingham Forest and the tie was lost. In the West Ham end that day was Paul Konchesky, a diehard Hammers fan, then just 10, who now forms a left-sided partnership with Etherington but who had then travelled up on a supporters' coach with his mother. Etherington does not have such close affiliations to any club, although his first shirt was a Liverpool away one - and John Barnes was his hero. "I watched him a lot when I was younger and his style was a big influence on me. "

Born in Truro, Cornwall, Etherington lived in Falmouth - where his father, Peter, had a butcher's business - until he was 13. "Football wasn't exactly big there and there wasn't really a team to follow. But I just loved the game," he says. Etherington was spotted playing for Camborne Lions by the legendary Peterborough academy director, Kit Carson. Eventually his family moved to the Fens to help him to pursue his career. His mother, Julie, worked as the club secretary up until last year while his sister, Hayley, was an executive in the commercial department.

"It was a great set-up," says Etherington of his time at Posh, where he made his first team debut aged just 15 - and still at school where he had to be excused from exam revision - and was selected for the divisional team of the year when 17. He is still in touch with Davies, now at Everton of course, as well as other former team-mates such as Exeter City's Matthew Gill and Mansfield Town's Gareth Jelleyman. "We got to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup as a Division Three side, which was unheard of really." Tomorrow Etherington hopes to go one better and - for the first time - reach a final. "It's a massive game in every respect. A massive game for the club, for the fans and for the players. It's what you play football for, it's what you live for."

With the other semi-finalists, Chelsea and Liverpool, set for next season's Champions' League, the winner of tomorrow's tie goes directly into the Uefa Cup. "It adds something else which makes it even more important," Etherington says. "We know we're just one game away from Europe. There's a lot riding on it for both teams but, for me, it's a huge occasion in its own right. The FA Cup, no matter what anyone says, has still got its traditions and is still the world's best cup competition."

The two sides met on Easter Monday. Boro ran out easy winners. "But it will be two different sides," Etherington says. "We probably had half the team out against Middlesbrough and vice versa. I don't think last Monday's result has any bearing whatsoever on Sunday."

Nevertheless, he regards the opposition as favourites. "Middlesbrough have a lot of top-quality players, top names who are on big salaries. So they probably would be the rightful favourites. We're above them in the League, but they are in the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup." Indeed, their exertions against Steaua Bucharest may have a bearing on tomorrow's events.

Cup success - and being back in the Premiership - will continue to push Etherington's again flourishing international claims. He was capped at Under-16, 18, 20 and 21 by England - where he played alongside Steven Gerrard and Jonathan Woodgate - but his progress had slowed. Another former team-mate was Joe Cole. Can he challenge his place on the left of England's midfield?

"I've heard it mentioned and it's nice," says the naturally left-footed Etherington of the prospect of an eventual call-up. "If I keep doing well and it's good enough then great. But it's out of my hands. I want to concentrate on West Ham, the club that took me on three years ago and showed faith in me. I think I'm paying them back now. I'm certainly giving them as much as I've got."

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