Defensive Promise

ALAN Pardew believes the form of defensive duo Anton Ferdinand and Elliott Ward is the main reason that West Ham United are in the Play-off Final, and the Hammers boss is backing the 20-year-old centre-backs to have a big game at the Millennium Stadium.

Ferdinand and Ward, both graduates of the Hammers Academy, were first paired together for the 1-1 draw with Crewe Alexander at Upton Park and the young stars have not looked back since helping West Ham United register a record of just one defeat in 12 on their way to Cardiff.

"They have proved their quality at the very highest level in this division," said Pards, "and I have every confidence that they will do it again in the Final.

"The pairing of Anton and Elliott in many ways saved our season. We had been hit with injuries at centre-half, especially to Christian Dailly and when I was looking at the run of games we had towards the end of the season I thought it was going to be tough.

"But along came Elliott Ward on his white horse and along with Anton their consistency over the last 12 games has been unbelievable.

"Christian Dailly was back and ready to go against Ipswich, and that was a tough call for me. But their performance in the semi-final was outstanding.

"Of course, there have been other factors over the past few months, with Matty Etherington coming back to his best and the form of Teddy Sheringham and now Bobby Zamora coming to the fore.

"But Anton and Elliott have been key to us reaching the Final."

Pards believes the two centre-backs will again have a vital role to play in Cardiff against a Preston strike-force that has proven goalscoring ability. But the Hammers boss has faith in a partnership, which is founded in a long-term friendship stretching back to the youth-team.

"Our two young centre-halves against Preston's strikers, David Nugent and Richard Cresswell, will be a key battle of the Final," he said.

"But they have the ability and confidence to stand up to the challenge. Their partnership is based on a strong friendship off the field, while on it they have good pace and excellent ability on the ball.

"When you look at most Championship sides their weakest area is centre-defence, but we have sold that with the emergence of two promising young players who have come in and done very well.

"Anton is the more natural leader, but Elliott brings a calm assurance to the defence and they compliment each other very well."

Ward's emergence, after unspectacular loan spells at Peterbrough United and Bristol Rovers, is made even more incredible by the fact that the big defender came very close to being told his career was over last season after a serious back injury.

"Elliott has not played a lot of football at all," he added. "He was injured for the whole of last season and when Peter Grant came here he thought Elliott was the video analysis guy, because that's what he did to stay involved with the squad.

"But he's taken to football at this level as though he's playing it his whole career.

"Anton has played a bit more, but he's come a long way as well. He made some mistakes when he first came into the side, but he showed great diligence and enthusiasm to learn which is now paying off.

"He was in my office most weeks talking through his performances. Now he's starting to emerge from a big shadow in terms of his brother and he's becoming a fine player in his own right.

"They have both done fantastic this season and I believe they have what it takes to handle the day in Cardiff."