Captain Cool

WEST Ham United's youngest ever captain will lead Alan Pardew's team out at the Millennium Stadium against Preston with one aim - to lead the Club back to the Premiership and banish some of the most painful memories of his career.

"I can't really describe in words what we felt last season," he confessed. "When something you have worked so hard for goes so wrong it's very hard to take.

"The build-up and excitement surrounding the game was so huge that it made the disappointment of losing indescribable. It's something we're determined not to go through again."

When he joined the Club from Wimbledon in January 2004, Nigel came with a reputation for leadership, having graduated from the Dons Academy to become first-team skipper. The 21-year-old has shown similar maturity to take up the captain's armband at Upton Park and is now focused on making the step up to the top-flight.

"Our aim has always been to make it back to the Premier League," he insisted. "We've had a season of ups and downs, but that focus has never changed and now we've got a great chance of winning promotion.

"There was criticism of the team earlier in the season, but we've shown our capabilities over the last 12 games and now we've got to take that form with us to the Play-off Final."

Nigel scored against Preston when Hammers lost 2-1 at Deepdale back in December, but this time around the midfielder would much prefer the win to any personal glory.

"It's going to be really tough against Preston," he agreed. "They've had two wins over us this season and that's something we've got to overcome in Cardiff.

"But this will be a different type of game in terms of the build-up, atmosphere and pressure and hopefully we can use the experiences of last season to our advantage.

"There's going to be pressure on both teams before the game and a lot will depend on how each team handles it.

"Like all the players, I'm committed to taking West Ham United back to the Premier League. Obviously it's always been my dream to play in the top-flight and we're going to do everything we can to get there."

Nigel believes that West Ham United's key to success will be in their preparation for Monday's Millennium Stadium showdown. And the midfielder reveals the changes to the team's build-up that have been made by Alan Pardew and his staff.

"This season we'll be travelling up the day before the game," he explained, "and basically trying to treat it as just another matchday.

"There is always so much pressure and intensity on games like this, but our aim is to just keep things relaxed during the build-up and make sure we're focused when it comes to the kick-off."

The significance of leading the Hammers out at the Millennium Stadium is certainly not lost on Nigel. But it's the scrutiny of his family, rather than the capacity crowd that the midfielder fears most, which is why his parents and two sisters will not be in Cardiff.

"Like I've said, we want to treat it like any other away trip," he explained. "We'll be sharing rooms as we usually do - I'll be in with Hayden Mullins as normal - and hopefully we'll be well prepared going into the game and that will show in our performance."