Jim Calls The Tune

LONG after the final whistle had blown at Portman Road last Wednesday night, the strains of Jimmy Walker belting out Frank Sinatra's greatest hits could still be heard reverberating around the away team dressing-room.

If truth be told, it was more Frank Spencer than Frank Sinatra, but that didn't matter to the popular Hammers goalkeeper, whose solid performance in the superb win over Ipswich Town proved that his legendary antics on the karaoke machine are only surpassed by his quality between the sticks.

Since joining the Hammers on a free transfer from Walsall last summer, the 31-year-old has enjoyed a highly competitive battle with Stephen Bywater for the number one spot at Upton Park. However, after returning to the fold in early April, Walker's steady displays have put him in pole position ahead of Monday's Play-off Final against Preston at the Millennium Stadium.

And while his team-mates may have boarded the team-coach in double quick time once his crooning began after the win at Ipswich, Jim had nothing but respect for their magnificent showing against the Championship's third-best team this season.

"I thought the lads were magnificent against Ipswich, they worked their socks off and played some great stuff, and it was a pleasure to watch at times," he says.

"We set our stall out, the formation works for us I think, and everyone played their part. The front players were terrific, Carl Fletcher came in and performed brilliantly with the rest of the midfield and the lads at the back were solid all night."

While goalscorer Bobby Zamora and provider Marlon Harewood deservedly grabbed the headlines after their exploits against Joe Royle's men, the defensive display was a triumph for Walker and his back four - not least the 20-year-old central defensive duo of Anton Ferdinand and Elliott Ward, who have both made quite an impression on the man they protect.

"It's unbelievable really," says Jim. "I got in the team at Wigan with eight or nine games to go, just after Anton and Elliott had been paired together. The gaffer thought my experience might help them and he told me to keep talking to them but, to be honest, they've handled the whole situation superbly on their own.

"They've faced some real tough strikers in the last couple of months and dealt with everything thrown at them. They just need to keep their feet on the ground and stay focused for one more game now."

For Jim, Monday's showpiece will mark his second visit to the Millennium Stadium. Having played for Walsall in the first batch of Play-off Finals to be held in Cardiff four years ago, he will now appear in the very last one before they return to Wembley next season.

However, don't expect him to remind people of the fact too loudly. His victory with the Saddlers in the 2001 Second Division Final came against Reading - then managed by Alan Pardew, who will be hoping to make it third time lucky in the Play-offs next Monday.

"I don't think Pards would be too happy if I brought that up in the build-up, to be honest!" laughs Jim. "It was a great day for Walsall, though, and it's the one and only time I've played at the Millennium Stadium so far, so I will draw on that experience and try to pass it on to the lads.

"A lot of them will have their own motivation, though, after the disappointment of last season. I joined the club during the hangover of that result, if you like, and it's to everyone's credit that we have bounced back and reached the Final again after a tough season.

"We know it will be another tough game against Preston but the confidence among the lads is high and we know that, if we can go and give a performance similar to that at Ipswich, we will give ourselves every chance of winning promotion."

Having spent most of his career battling with unfashionable Walsall in the lower divisions, Jim is understandably desperate to test himself among the elite as he reaches the prime years of his goalkeeping career - and victory against Preston would certainly justify his decision to swap the Bescot Stadium for Upton Park."

"I came here wanting the Premiership," he says. "I knew West Ham United had a Premiership set-up, with Premiership fans, and I've always thought we had the players to get us there.

"It's all down to the one game now, anything can happen, but we'll give a strong performance and hope that our quality sees us through."

So now the end is near, Jim insists he's ready to face the final curtain…and do it his way.