David De Gea goes to make a punch. Commentators open their mouths, primed to use the adjectives "shaky" and "suspect" (which are joined in their minds by an unspoken third: "foreign"). The ball arcs into the six-yard box. De Gea moves forward, looking to climb past Nemanja Vidic and a stray opponent. Everything is going according to plan. Then something happens. De Gea is clattered by a something made of hair and sweat. Manchester United's Mr Tumnus sinks to the floor. Replays are conferred, interest piqued.
A man, a sweary whirlwind of a man, jogs back to the centre circle. "What just happened?" thinks De Gea. The answer is simple: Andy Carroll just happened.
The West Ham forward has always had something of the battering ram about him. It's the cliff-face face. It's the pyramid worker's shoulders. He shoves defenders aside, jumps higher than them, and clobbers the ball harder with his head than most people can with their feet. Even when he does indulge in a little football it's similarly brutish: his kicks are mulish reflex reactons. Much as you should never walk behind a horse, you should never walk in front of Andy Carroll. Taken together, his attributes are startlingly effective, but the bluster had never spilled over into Operation Rolling Thunder territory until Wednesday night.
One man will have been particularly pleased with the challenge on De Gea. Your humble reporter can exclusively* reveal that in order to bring the best out of Carroll, Sam Allardyce has enlisted the help of Richard Hill, the former England and British Lions rugby union stalwart. The aim, according to emails acquired through entirely legal means, was to "release the beast" inside the young Gateshead native by retraining him as a flanker.
Instead of practicing with the rest of the West Ham squad over the last eight months, Carroll has been lifting weights and working with tackling pads and scrummage machines. Hill mentors the 24-year-old four days a week, reporting on his progress to Allardyce on a fortnightly basis. The apprenticeship isn't merely physical, either: once a month, Hill takes Carroll to watch London Irish, pointing out the intricacies of rucking, mauling and line-out play.
The whole affair, which goes by the codename "Project Total Flanker" within Upton Park, has been kept secret since its inception in August, with West Ham fearing that other clubs would seek to get in on the act. "If Wigan, for example, knew we were retraining Carroll as a flanker," revealed Cleethorpe Wengrove, head of development for the Irons, "we knew they'd immediately get Matt Dawson in to teach Shaun Maloney to be a scrum-half. Same goes for Grant Holt at Norwich: he's a clear prop forward." Despite the secrecy, there were leaks: Yaya Toure's physical dominance and trundling ball-carrying style are thought to be linked to a series of training sessions with Lawrence Dallaglio.
Sources say Carroll is fascinated by rugby, to the extent that only Allardyce's heavy hand is preventing him from switching sports altogether. Carroll has, on occasion, been close to revealing the ruse: in November, for instance, he was photographed shopping for gum shields and scrum caps at the Westfield centre. Only the quick thinking of West Ham's media manager ("Err... his kids play rugby league for Warrington") prevented a disaster. Still, there are clues for those prepared to seek them. A quick glance at his website reveals that he is currently the only Premier League footballer to be sponsored by Canterbury.
The challenge on De Gea was a textbook example of what Hill terms a "crash ball" movement. "Typically, that kind of technique would be used to knock back players at the side of a ruck," he told me. "You'll be seeing plenty more of that in the coming months."
It is unclear, however, whether Carroll's rugby cross-training will continue to be as effective now his secret is out. Measures are available to combat his forceful play, with a raft of lightweight players known to have invested in shoulder pads in recent days. As for De Gea, he is apparently willing to try something even more unique: the Spaniard has hired snooker maverick Ronnie O'Sullivan as part of his entourage. How that will help is as yet unclear, but it seems the cross-pollination of sport is here to stay in the Premier League.
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