Swan Songs: Diego Tristán at West Ham

WORDS: TOM VICTOR

After his days as a Champions League star with Deportivo had come to an end, Diego Tristán surprised a few when he made the move to Upton Park in 2008 under the management of Gianfranco Zola, and although his stay in East London was not exactly barnstorming, he certainly had his moments…

Like most football fans of my generation, the Champions League has carried an almost mythical charm, no doubt amplified by the relative inaccessibility of European leagues that came with the lack of a Sky Sports subscription.

With West Ham rarely even threatening the upper echelons of the Premier League, and with enough cynicism at a young age not to swallow the “Any real fan will get behind all the English teams” jingoism, I quickly became attached to the sorts of teams that would have seen me labelled a hipster if social media amounted to any more than the 606 Forums and MSN Live Chat. Among the sides who caught the eye were Klaus Toppmöller’s Bayer Leverkusen, Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv, and Javier Irureta’s Deportivo de la Coruña.

Depor had stunned many to win La Liga in 2000, and quickly became a fixture in the Champions League. I have many fond memories of the Galician side, from games against English opposition in the short-lived second group stage to the so-ridiculous-it-seemed-untrue 8-3 defeat in Monaco, and many were headlined by the goals of Diego Tristán.

To my impressionable teenage mind, he seemed like the complete striker. Powerful with and without the ball, good in the air, and possessing of a lethal shot. Double figures in each of his six seasons in La Coruña are testament to that, though his peak undoubtedly came towards the start of that period with 2001-02 representing his only 30-goal campaign.

Depor failed to make the most of their only Champions League semi-final appearance, going out with a whimper against Porto after Juan Carlos Valeron’s missed penalty, and as they slipped out of the limelight so did their number nine.

It came as a shock, therefore, to see a by now 32-year-old Tristán rock up at Upton Park in 2008. It was early into Gianfranco Zola’s reign, and the Italian had already shown signs of a creative transfer policy (or at least his countryman, director of football Gianluca Nani, had done so). Out went Freddie Ljungberg and Richard Wright, in came Herita Ilunga and David di Michele.

Tristán was not the first member of that Depor side to arrive in East London – right-back Lionel Scaloni is still blamed by some for his part in Steven Gerrard’s equaliser in the 2006 FA Cup Final – but his arrival still came as a shock to those who’d not so much as thought about his name in two or three years.

Few expected an athlete at the peak of his powers. Tristán was relatively stocky even at the best of times, but the club had been used to an attack led by a similarly unusual talent in Dean Ashton, whose own career would soon be cut short after an injury suffered in Zola’s first game proved one too many for the England international.

With Carlton Cole enjoying arguably his best season in claret and blue, and with di Michele chipping in with the occasional important goal, Tristán was afforded cult status far more easily than he might have been if the club had been struggling.

And that’s not to say the Spaniard’s own contribution in front of goal wasn’t significant in its own right. Tristán only scored three goals in his spell at Upton Park, but each one was important. An equaliser against Aston Villa which the BBC claimed helped “snatch a barely deserved point”, sandwiched by two winners against that most anti-Zola of beast, Tony Pulis’ newly-promoted Stoke side.

Both were fantastic for different reasons. The first, (perhaps unwittingly) deflecting a Cole shot beyond Thomas Sørensen, came in a game which the Potteries side had been dominating until Ricardo Fuller was sent off for slapping his own captain in the face seconds after West Ham’s equaliser. The second, meanwhile, showed the kind of class that fans hoped for when his arrival was announced: an effortless free-kick curled into the top corner in a manner befitting of his time as a Champions League sensation.

Tristán played in the final three games of the season but failed to add to his tally, and his contract was not renewed. However his time at the club (well, that and shockingly poor planning) has begun a tradition of West Ham bringing in international strikers who had seen better days.

Mexico’s Guille Franco arrived the following season, with Big John Carew™ brought in to help with the club’s promotion push following relegation under Avram Grant. Both at least found the net on a few occasions, which is more than can be said for Mladen Petrić’s four-month spell in 2013. And of course last season saw the recently released Carlton Cole handed an 18-month deal on higher wages for reasons that no one has quite pinned down.

Each had their own charm (well, maybe not Petrić), but Tristán’s spell was somehow different. It hearkened back to those distant 90s afternoons when a previously intangible superstar would find himself on a Premier League pitch alongside relics from the era before Sky’s millions, providing the kind of spark you couldn’t get from the likes of Keith Rowland and Dale Gordon.

The Zola era at West Ham ended just five years ago, but the involvement of obscure foreigners, false-dawn youngsters and strikers in the twilight of their careers means it feels like a generation away.

Tom Victor is a London-based writer and editor who has written for Africa is a Country and The Secret Footballer, among others. Follow him on Twitter @tomvictor
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