Bywater Saves The Day

STEPHEN Bywater may have been called into unexpected action during a nail-biting finale to yesterday's Play-off triumph, but the young goalkeeper says he was more than ready for action.

The 23-year-old stepped off the bench in the 87th minute after Jimmy Walker had been stretchered off the field and, with the Hammers hanging on to a narrow 1-0 lead, stayed firm as we secured our Premiership return.

However, it wasn't a case of coming in from the cold - for Stephen had already prepared himself for his first appearance in more than two months.

"During the game, Jim had been feeling his groin a little bit, so I had been warming up a lot and preparing myself for the possibility of going on," he reveals. "I went out at half-time with Ludo - something I never normally do - and made sure I was ready if needed.

"As it was, Jim unfortunately came off with a more serious injury, and I just had to go on and do my job. I think it's fate - what's meant to be - and I was just delighted that we held on for the win, the lads were fantastic."

Stephen's first duty upon taking to the field was to face a free-kick from the edge of the penalty area after Walker had handled outside the box in the process of suffering his knee injury.

With hearts in mouths, 35,000 Hammers fans could barely bring themselves to watch as Preston's Paul McKenna stepped up, but as his fierce low effort beat the defensive wall, the substitute 'keeper was in the right place to expertly smother the shot.

"It came through the wall and I was a bit lucky that it was straight at me, but it helped me get straight into the game," says the ever-modest Bywater. "There was obviously a lot of pressure but I just had to do my job and keep a cool head.

"Ludo told me to stay relaxed but focused and that's what I tried to do. It was a bit daunting to see seven minutes go up on the injury-time board but I knew there would be a fair bit of stoppage time and it was just a case of hanging on."

It was a deserving end to the season for the former England under-21 stopper, who lost his place to the more experienced Walker at the beginning of April but responded in typically professional and dedicated style.

Now the longest-serving member of the first team squad, Stephen can be rightly proud of his role in helping Hammers to bounce back and is looking forward to hopefully adding to the handful of Premiership appearances he made as an 18-year-old some five years ago.

"I've played 30-odd games this season so I like to think I've played my part, as have all the lads," he says. "We're a team and we all stick together, whoever is in the starting line-up.

"The manager makes the decisions and I respect that. Me and Jimmy get on really well and I was sad to see him go off with a bad injury, but he is delighted that we have made it to the Premiership.

"I was here when we were relegated and I was here when we lost the final last year, so it's fantastic to experience this feeling. You learn from past experiences and it makes the good times even better

"We'll have a nice break now and enjoy the summer, then come back in July raring to go."