HEART OF FOOTBALL

Late developer Payet emerges as Hammers' creative wizard

The way this strange season is shaping in English football, the Player of the Year could be a straight fight between Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez and West Ham's Dimitri Payet.

Both are called magicians. Both are dribblers of the old school, relatively small and slight figures with an ability to trick opponents and at the same time either score or create goals for others.

Today, Payet will try to knock Manchester United out of the last thing they might still hope to win this season, the FA Cup.

Tomorrow, Mahrez will seek to bamboozle one of the easier defences to fool, Newcastle United.

The inevitable has happened, and Newcastle have replaced manager Steve McClaren with Rafa Benitez in a late attempt to turn a wretched season into Premier League survival.


West Ham fans hail Dimitri Payet (right) as as the closest thing in the East End of London since Paolo di Canio plied his trade and his wizardry there more than a decade ago. PHOTO: REUTERS

  • When you think of all the big names, and massive wages, at the Manchester clubs, at Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool, it really is remarkable that supposedly smaller-budget clubs such as Leicester and West Ham are not only there in the table, but often better to watch in the league that markets itself as the best on earth.

Newcastle, second bottom, have to pull off a shock win at the King Power stadium.

All it takes is to upset the mammoth odds in the way that Leicester pulled off the great escape from relegation this time last year and kept that spirit going so that they deservedly lead the English Premier League (EPL).

Most weeks, Mahrez, formerly of Le Havre in France, is the key, alongside the leading striker Jamie Vardy.

And many, if not most weeks, Payet, formerly of Le Havre, makes West Ham tick, home or away.

When you think of all the big names, and massive wages, at the Manchester clubs, at Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool, it really is remarkable that supposedly smaller-budget clubs such as Leicester and West Ham are not only there in the table, but often better to watch in the league that markets itself as the best on earth.

Take a look at the likely attacking line-ups at Old Trafford this evening.

It's never a good idea to try to second guess what formation United manager Louis van Gaal will go with. Two weeks ago, the teenager Marcus Rashford was all the rage, but since then Big Louis has tried rotation, pushing young Rashford out to the wing and negating his instinctive goal poaching.

Anthony Martial has become the preferred centre-forward, probably supported today by Jesse Lingard on the right, Marouane Fellaini in the middle and Memphis Depay on the left.

If that is the case, the Hammers might fancy the chances of their three behind the striker Emmanuel Emenike.

Payet, of course, will be the pivotal creator, with Michail Antonio on one side, Manuel Lanzini on the other.

Interesting characters, this threesome.

Antonio, despite the name, is a Londoner, a hungry one having been a part-time player (and swimming pool lifeguard) in his time before, at the age of 25, West Ham took him off the roundabout of short-term loans and hopping from club to club in the lower divisions.

The trouble with Antonio is that his game is based on instinct. West Ham's manager Slaven Bilic is the first to really work on making him more consistent - and three goals in the last three games from Antonio is the reward.

Lanzini, originally from the River Plate school in his native Argentina, came on loan to West Ham via the Abu Dhabi club Al Jazira.

All roads lead to the EPL when an inquisitive manager like Bilic gets his chance at a club he once played for. In large measure, what we are seeing with West Ham's rise this season is Bilic's tenacity which has been transmitted to the players. He was a defender, and the creative line of three outlined above are what Bilic would like to have been, given licence to thrill.

There is work ethic laced in there because, if you watch the managers on the touchline, you'll see that, while van Gaal usually sits like stone, Bilic is living every moment, pulling the imaginary strings with his arm movements, demanding tireless effort.

Listen to Bilic, and you might believe that Payet is the player of the season - bar none.

Once again, like Mahrez at Leicester (and like Vardy and Antonio from the lower reaches of English football), the upward curve of Payet has been long in coming.

And long in terms of distance.

He was born and raised 9,700km away from where he is now, on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. It belongs to France under what the French call an overseas department, and so, when young Payet's talents became obvious, he was shipped to Le Havre.

He was barely 12, homesick, immature and temperamental. By the age of 16, Le Havre had rejected him and sent him back to the island. However, there were other clubs in mainland France prepared to work on him, and he came through Nantes, Saint-Etienne, Lille and Marseille to where he is now.

Slowly maturing, perhaps. A big talent, but a non-conformist, not disruptive but inclined to indulge in his own fantasy.

He needed a coach who would work through his inconsistency and persuade him to become enough of a team player to fulfil his ability.

Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa, born in Rosario, the same city as Lionel Messi, became that coach.

Bielsa is an intense personality from a family of politicians and lawyers - a coach who demands the utmost from players more gifted than he proved to be.

He managed the Argentina national side from 1998 to 2004, and the Chile national team from 2007 to 2011. So, in his brief spell at Marseille in 2014, he recognised the talent in Payet, and was prepared to beg or bully the player to grow into his skills.

It was late in the day but Payet, who turns 29 this month, learnt from Bielsa to apply himself more reliably. His work on free kicks, for example, became legend in Marseille, and his passing or shooting with either foot is outstanding now.

Yes, there are moments of impudence, flights of fantasy designed to thrill. But the Hammers are hard fans to please, and they hail him as the closest thing in the East End of London since Paolo di Canio plied his trade and his tricks there over a decade ago.

MANCHESTER UNITED V WEST HAM

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Late developer Payet emerges as Hammers' creative wizard'. Print Edition | Subscribe