YELLOW Advertiser football correspondent, Brian Jeeves, recently caught up with former Hammers, Anton Ferdinand and Zavon Hines, now enjoying life by the seaside and looking to mount a promotion push with Sky Bet League One club, Southend United.
It’s a freezing cold January morning at Southend United’s ‘Boots & Laces’ training ground. The scene is certainly a far cry from the altogether more glossy surroundings of the Premier League or an epic FA Cup final. Nevertheless, one-time Hammers defender, Anton Ferdinand, who has experience all those footballing highs, is loving life with the Shrimpers; “I’m enjoying it, he said. “I’m enjoying my football again which is the main thing. If you’re not enjoying your football, life is not good. I like the surroundings, the lads are fantastic and the coaching staff are top-draw. The club are very family orientated as a whole which is what I’m used to.
Anton’s thoughts are echoed by Zavon Hines, another former Hammers who has found the Southend environment to his liking: “Southend has been really great. We’ve got a good bunch of lads which made it very easy for me to settle. I new Anton and Michael Timlin when I came here, they made it comfortable for me to settle. Southend have some very good players and a terrific team spirit. On top of that, they are challenging for promotion, something that I’m keen to be a part of.”
Manager, Phil Brown, is spearheading Southend’s quest for promotion. And it was clear that his influence had rubbed off on both players: “In all honesty, if Phil Brown wasn’t at the club, I wouldn’t be here either, Anton told me. “No disrespect to the club, but when I sat down with Phil, the way he spoke to me was a big pull for me to come to Southend.
“As a manager, I don’t think you could get much better in this league. In terms of what he has done in the game, the respect level he commands and the bigger players he has attracted to the club.”
This was echoed by Zavon, who was grateful for the opportunity handed to him by the one-time Hull City chief: “I am getting to know him as a man and as a person. He wants everyone to do well. He’s a good man and has treated me well from the first day I arrived on trial. As a coach he gets involved as well, that’s something I like. Some managers keep their distance, but he gets involved and has gained respect for the whole team because they all want to play for him.”
Southend’s rise up the Sky Bet League One table has been quite remarkable, especially after their poor start to the campaign. And the quality at Roots Hall hadn’t gone unnoticed by Ferdinand: “The lads are great, Anton explained. “There are no egos in this group. Everyone is level headed and down to earth. We’ve also got some really good players. Footballers that I personally think should be playing higher. like, Ryan Leonard. People talk about Nile Ranger and myself, no chance. I think it’s Ryan Leonard, he is our most important player.”
Despite their new surroundings, Anton and Zavon still had some fond memories and clearly held West Ham United very close to their hearts: I’ve got nothing but fond memories of West Ham, Anton stated. “Going from the stands as a fan to becoming a player is what dreams are made of. Running out at Upton Park, wearing the shirt and knowing what it means, there really isn’t anything better than that. West Ham are a club where players may come from different backgrounds, but they leave a fan. Certainly, that was the vibe from the team I was in. The majority of the lads still class themselves as West Ham supporters and go to the games now whenever they can.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Anton’s earliest recollections of the club centred around big brother, Rio: “My earliest memories are Rio’s debut against Sheffield Wednesday. “Everyone had talked him up to be a skilful player who was comfortable on the ball. Some had likened him to Bobby Moore. But his first touch went into ‘Row Z’, Anton Joked.
“Before that, I remember Rio signing his schoolboy forms on the pitch. That was the first time I went to Upton Park. I fell in love with the place from that day. West Ham are in our blood.”
Meanwhile, Zavon reminisced being a teenager harbouring ambitions of making it with the Hammers: “I remember getting the train from Brixton to attend trials with the under 16’s. We had a few lads there who went on to have careers in the game, such as Freddie Sears, Junior Stanislas, Bondz N’Gala and Joe Widdowson. They were already at the Hammers academy, I started later. I’d never experienced a pro-club before.
“I was fifteen and had six months to try to earn a scholarship. The experience was fantastic. I was buzzing to be with a professional club. I didn’t think too much about the scholarship, I was simply enjoying being involved with West Ham.”
Zavon was quick to point out the positive impact coaches, Kevin Keen and Tony Carr, had during his fledgeling career with the club: “Kevin was managing the under 16’s at the time. He helped me more than I realised at the time. He was one of the best coaches I have had in the game. He helped me develop as a person and a footballer.
“When I moved up to the under 18’s I was playing under Tony who is a legendary figure at West Ham of course. He helped me develop mentally. The way he carried off the sessions helped me become more professional. It was something I needed because as a kid that is perhaps something that is lacking in certain areas.
“At the start of my second year, Tony made me captain of the under 18’s. However, I missed a large chunk of the season through injury. Nevertheless, when he gave me the captaincy I believe a matured as a person.”
Anton told me about the influence Rio had on him: “It inspired me one-hundred percent. I could have sat down and said I don’t want to work hard, I don’t have to because my brother is going to take care of the family. But that wasn’t the case for me. Everything he had, I wanted it. I wanted it for myself. When he brought our mum a house I saw mum’s face, that inspired me.
“I wanted mum to look at me like that because of something I’d done. I was lucky enough to do that.”
Unquestionably, playing in big games at the top level had been a highlight for both players: “I played in the Premier League, the best League in the world, Anton said. “I was at that level for eleven years, not many people from my background can say that.
“The year that we went to the FA Cup final was unbelievable. Many top players haven’t played in the final. It is the most famous cup competition in the world. It people talk about it as the greatest FA Cup final, but we didn’t get the win. It remains the only domestic competition that isn’t in our family. It’s the only one Rio didn’t win either. It’s now down to our son’s to put that right.
I sensed pure emotion in Anton’s voice as he spoke about the 2006 cup final team: “It was amazing to be a part of that West Ham team. If you look at the current team, they probably have better individuals. But in terms of a team and togetherness, I don’t think they come close to our side.
“To a man we had everything. Pace, power, flair but above all we had players who were willing to work hard because we knew that we couldn’t carry people. The likes of Yossi Benayoun, who was one of the best flair players I’ve ever played with, still liked a 50-50 tackle and would track his marker all the way back. Matthew Etherington was exactly the same. Then, a year later it was Carlos Tevez. He was probably the best footballer I’ve ever played alongside. His work ethic on a matchday was second to none, but we had work ethic all over the pitch.
“I’ve just moved into a new house and was looking through some of my memorabilia. I found my FA Cup final boots and shirt which I thought I’d lost. The memories came flooding back. I was able to show my three-year-old son, it was like he understood, it was a proud moment for me.”
Although Zavon’s stay with the Hammers wasn’t on the same scale as that of Anton, the ‘West Ham effect’ was in the forefront of his mind, with a dramatic winning goal against Aston Villa at Upton Park back in November 2009 still sending a tingle down his spine: “I think that was the best moment of my career, he said. “At the time we were struggling towards the bottom end of the Premier League and hadn’t won for a while. Gianfranco Zola was the manager. I’ve got a lot of respect for him because he gave me my opportunity to be with the first team a lot more.
“When I scored the goal I didn’t know what to do, I just remember running. It was a lot of joy. Because of my background in Brixton, scoring the winning goal in the Premier League was a massive thing. No one from my area had done it, I wanted to do it for them. I particularly wanted to show the youngsters from my area that it could be done and they could do it too.”
Indeed, Zavon’s tough upbringing gave him a huge desire to succeed: “Playing in the Premier League is the most amazing feeling. At first, I didn’t expect it to happen. I’d been sent out a few times on loan and had struggled with injuries. Initially, I question if it would happen for me or if I’d make the grade.
“But I had a desire to succeed at West Ham because they had given me an opportunity and I wanted to repay them. I continued to work hard and the club showed faith in me. I had been injured but the Hammers gave me another year, I desperately wanted to repay their faith so I worked as hard as possible and it paid off.”
Zavon continued: “I didn’t have the best upbringing, but I knew that I had the willpower to succeed. A few people thought that because I was a footballer I didn’t want to know them because I had made it. But the real friends that I had back then are still with me now. They understood the sacrifices I had to make.
“Indeed, now one of my closest friends has started up an academy because, he too, wanted to give something back and let kids know that there is an alternative route if you put your mind to it.”
Despite admitting to me that he was a childhood Arsenal fan, Zavon was adamant that it was the Hammers who he now looked out for: “I still look out for West Ham’s results every week. I still get a little bit angry when they lose or aren’t where they should be in the league. Once you’ve been a part of the club it doesn’t ever leave you.”
(Reproduced with permission of West Ham United FC)