Over the years, former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has been called a lot of things by a lot of people, but one of the more complimentary labels that even his most fierce critic would permit him is shrewd.
If a player is not up to it, Wenger spots it early. And if a player is good, he keeps him until he has given his all. A rare example of a player leaving Wenger’s Arsenal with some fuel still in the tank is left-back Nigel Winterburn.
Having won three League titles and two FA Cups in 13 years with the Gunners, in 2000, at the age of 36, he moved on and saw out his last three seasons at West Ham, three of the most eventful and colourful in the club’s recent history.
‘In an ideal world I’d wanted to retire at Arsenal, but in the last six months Silvinho came through and I wasn’t playing regularly, which at my age I needed to,’ Winterburn told Blowing Bubbles.
‘Having been someone who had always played regularly, I couldn’t accept that. I would probably have retired at the end of that season if I didn’t get a move out, but once I knew West Ham were interested, it made sense. If any other offers came in from anyone else, I didn’t even entertain them. My mind was made up.’
The squad that the 36-year-old walked into under manager Harry Redknapp was a lively mix of young talents like Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, and larger-than-life characters like John Moncur and Sebastien Schemmel. But Winterburn’s only real concern was what fans would think.
‘Of course you have your worries moving clubs at that stage, it would mean a new environment and new players and I was aware of my age, so I didn’t want West Ham fans thinking I was going there for another pay day,’ he said. ‘When you join at that age, people are always likely to think that, but anyone who knows me will tell you that’s not me. If I couldn’t play to my standard, I’d retire.’
Winterburn calls Redknapp ‘intriguing’ and admits getting on personally the manager was a big reason for his move. That, and to avoid having to come to Upton Park as an away player again.
‘I got on well with Harry and liked everything about the place – he didn’t have to sell the club to me. And knowing how hostile those fans could be to away teams having played there so often, I was looking forward to having them behind me for a change!’
There was of course one minor detail that would have to be addressed when the new signing met up with his new team-mates. Paolo di Canio. Winterburn was playing for Arsenal at Sheffield Wednesday on the day in 1999 when di Canio became front page news for pushing over referee Paul Alcock after being sent off, a move which ended his Wednesday career and ultimately offered Redknapp the opportunity to bring him to West Ham, where he soon became the team’s guiding force.
As di Canio left the field that day, Winterburn ran over to usher the Italian on his way, only to promptly jump back as if startled by a ghost when di Canio snarled at him.
‘On the first day of training the players put us next to one another in the dressing room to get changed and it stayed like that for a long time – I wish I could tell you we had a boxing match, but we shook hands and he gave me a hug,’ he said. ‘Once he realised the type of person I was, how I played and how I trained, I think he was very similar in that way and we had a mutual respect.
‘I was a bit worried when I went in but I’m not a grudge holder, I’ve always been that way. It worked pretty well. I knew he was at West Ham, if I’d wanted to avoid him I would have gone somewhere else. I laugh at the whole thing now, but there was no need to break the ice with him – it was in the past.’
Di Canio was not the only colourful character in the dressing room at this time. Winterburn had the questionable pleasure of playing alongside two of the most eccentric players West Ham have had in recent years – Tomas Repka, whose disciplinary record is still the stuff of legend and who famously earned two yellow cards in the final minute of a draw with Fulham, and Sebastien Schemmel, who arrived at the club having been labelled ‘phenomenally unstable’ by the chairman of the club that sold him, Metz.
‘Repka was fine. I know some of the players are big characters, but you don’t worry about that as long as they’re doing their job. He was an interesting character but not difficult in any way – I don’t know what fans thought about him, but he was certainly someone who would give his all,’ he said.
‘Schemmel was slightly different though, because you never knew if he would turn up or not! I’d have loved to be inside his brain when he was at West Ham.
‘In his first season he came from nowhere and his performances were incredible (he was named Hammer of the Year in 2001-02) but then he would disappear for days, nobody would know where he was, only to pop up on match day.’
Having been at Arsenal for more than a decade, much of it played under Wenger, as part of the famous back four unit of Winterburn, Adams, Dixon and Bould, Winterburn was a player used to permanence and continuity, so when Redknapp departed at the end of his first season, to be replaced by Glenn Roeder, it was something of a novelty for him.
‘When you get on with a manager, there’s always a bit of doubt about who’s going to take over and what your role will be, but I joined West Ham because I wanted to play, not just because of Harry,’ he said.
‘We had a good relationship. Harry understood what I needed to do in training and what recovery time I needed, with my experience he never questioned my judgement or thought I was skiving. He respected what I told him, so I was 100 per cent ready to play in the next game for him.’
Roeder’s first season in charge saw the team finish seventh in the Premier League, but the following season, in 2002-03, a combination of a woeful start, player unrest and freakishly bad luck with injuries – this was the first campaign, incidentally, where the transfer window was in operation, denying West Ham the chance to sign injury cover – meant it was a shocker, on and off the pitch, for Winterburn more than most.
‘Glenn had issues with some players and had a fall-out with Paolo which was one of the main reasons why form went so badly, although to be fair to him, we had a hell of a lot of injuries too and even played Ian Pearce up front,’ Winterburn said.
‘When I play, whatever may be going on, I try to respect the manager and work with his ideas because ultimately, the people who suffer are the fans. Players move on and retire but supporters are still there, it’s important to remember that.’
Roeder’s lasting impact on West Ham history is to be remembered as the man who somehow managed to get one of the most talented squads the club has seen in years relegated in the 2002-03 season. For half of it, Winterburn was consigned to the sidelines, in what turned out to be a horribly anticlimactic and upsetting end to a highly impressive career. But many fans will not know that he was not even supposed to be at the club in the first place.
‘That third season was a bizarre one,’ he explained. ‘I’d only signed a two-year deal and West Ham had said they weren’t going to renew, so I was all set to retire.
‘The only thing that had given me any second thoughts was an offer from my home town team Coventry, which I was considering, but then having put all my boots in the car at the end of the 2001-2002 season, three weeks later West Ham wanted me back.
‘I told the guy doing my deal to sort it out and let me know when it’s done, but then he called back to say they wanted to give me 40 per cent less wages and a bonus if I was in the starting XI.
‘I told him take what was on offer but make sure the appearance bonus included substitute appearances too. That was handy because as it turned out, against Tottenham I had to come on in the first minute so I wanted to make sure I was paid properly.
‘Maybe they thought I would flatly refuse to sign for less money, but once they came back in, I decided it was better to stay and play with players I knew. As it turned out, though, it was the relegation season. It was disastrous for me.’
On and off the field, things were awful. ‘I played up until Christmas then I broke my wrist but it wasn’t detected for six weeks, so they had to rebreak it and pin it, which meant I couldn’t play. Rufus Brevett came in and took my place and then in February I found out my dad had cancer,’ Winterburn said.
‘I was spending so much time in Coventry with him and only training with the team once a week that I suggested I rip up my contract there and then, but Glenn wouldn’t have it, he said to keep it and do whatever I needed to do.
‘February was effectively the end for me, and the last time I played, against Liverpool. It was such a horrible period to be part of, I wish I could have just wiped that last year away, but these things make you stronger, you have to get on and deal with it.’
The death of his father drained Winterburn of enthusiasm to play, and at the age of 39, he retired, but he looks back on his time at West Ham with genuine pride and happiness. And had it not been for his family tragedy, he could have played on.
‘Those first two seasons were incredible and I had an amazing time. I went out to try and show West Ham supporters that I wasn’t just there for the money, and I wanted them to know that even if I was part of team that had gone down, I’d given my all,’ he said.
‘After dad died I just didn’t want to play football. If things had worked out differently, though, I would have had no qualms about playing in the Championship, for nothing, because you don’t want to be associated with a team that goes down. That team should have been in the top half of the league – even now I look at the squad we had that season, and think “how did we got down?”.’