Neill proud of 'huge responsibility'

Lucas Neill has spoken of his pride at being captain of West Ham United as he returns to former club Blackburn Rovers on Sunday afternoon.

The defender has been hugely influential at the Boleyn Ground since his January arrival from Ewood Park, helping his new club engineer a remarkable recovery at the end of last season before playing his part in this campaign's consistent form. Reflecting on his switch south, Neill,said: "Here I am today leading what I feel is a very big club. Pound for pound, a much bigger club than Blackburn but ultimately I have got a huge responsibility with that. I am still learning but I am relishing the opportunity."

Neill has fond memories of his time with Blackburn, despite the welcome he got from some supporters when he first went back in March for a 2-1 away win that paved the way for seven wins from the last nine games. "You always like to go back to your old club," he said. "Last year it was the start of our revival, our survival. It was the first game we had won in a while and it was a very indifferent reception, a very negative reception, I got. I suppose I got the last laugh."

The Australian defender also was at pains to pay tribute to Mark Hughes, one of the game's leading coaches who Neill feels could go all the way in management. "Footballing wise I think it is going to be, apart from Chelsea last week, our hardest game to date. It is a compliment to Mark Hughes and his staff because whenever you play Blackburn you know you've been in a game. They top the stats in stamina, in sprints and you always know you've earned your points or you've earned your performance."

Hughes had a lasting impact on Neill, imparting the experience of a playing career that took in four of Europe's biggest clubs in Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea as well as international coaching with Wales. "[He] made me a better professional and I was prepared for anything when I left. We had a good heart to heart the day I was leaving and we both shook hands. He gave me his blessing and we both wished each other good luck."

That decision to leave was fuelled by a hunger for a fresh challenge. "I had six years at Blackburn and I needed a change of scenery because I felt I had been at the club as long as I could be and given the best I could give them. I needed to change where I was just to sharpen myself up again because I was too comfortable in my surroundings. And I didn't want to get stale and put in performances that were just average or mediocre.

"I needed to go and give myself new challenges and new people to impress and new team-mates - to get myself stimulated again. That's why I was disappointed with the reception I got from Blackburn because I had given them six years of missing four games a season and never missed a day's training." With Blackburn in the past, it is West Ham United who are feeling the benefit of Neill's leadership qualities and he is excited about what is happening with the club.

"We are equipped in all areas of the field. I suppose the way we have started the season - January will almost feel like we have got three or four new signings because we have got so many people just starting to do their rehabilitation on the field. By the time January comes again they will be close, if not match-fit. No doubt the manager will have nice problems with team selection and it will just raise the level of competition for places out on the training ground which will be great.

"Hopefully that will inspire us to kick on a little bit. I feel we have just gone into a bit of limbo of late, not picking up enough points and maybe leaving a few points out on the field." As well as the league focus, Everton arrive in the Carling Cup quarter-finals on Wednesday, and Neill is determined to go all the way to February's final - especially having missed out on Blackburn's League Cup triumph in 2002 because he was cup-tied. The chance to lead West Ham United out at Wembley little more than a year after his arrival would be just reward for a man who is relishing every minute of his new experience.

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