Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Dragged Down

Eggert Magnusson is the subject of The Guardian's 'Big Interview' as speaks candidly for the first time about the Carlos Tevez affair. It is his biggest ever interview in the British media and makes for interesting reading.

'West Ham has been dragged down. This hurts me most'
By Donald McRae

I am a busy, busy man," Eggert Magnusson says animatedly as, on the threshold of a new Premier League season, the West Ham United chairman reaches for his favourite adjective to underline his place at the heart of a footballing soap opera. During his "busy" nine-month tenure at Upton Park, trouble and strife have stretched from a bitter relegation battle and miraculous last-day escape to dubiously tangled transfer deals and High Court writs. A few other time-consuming factors - including deceit and dissent from overpaid players and a threatened points deduction - have ensured that the Icelandic multi-millionaire has never felt bored since switching his trade from biscuit-making to Premier League wheeler-dealing.

"I like to be busy," he says. "This is why I am always so upbeat at West Ham. Every morning I wake up there is a tough new challenge. Even these last few months, where there has been so much pain with the Tevez saga, there have been moments of joy. It has been a great time."

Off the field it has been impossible to detect any trace of greatness in the row over the ownership of Carlos Tevez, whose outstanding contribution as a footballer was symbolised by the goal he scored at Old Trafford to confirm West Ham's salvation last May. After Sheffield United's subsequent failure to overturn a Premier League decision merely to fine West Ham £5.5m for breaking the rules with regard to third-party ownership of players, rather than strip them of points, Magnusson has been embroiled in a legal squabble with Tevez's agent, Kia Joorabchian, over which party had the right to sell the Argentine striker to Manchester United. The controversy offered a definitive snapshot of football's murky business.

"I was never concerned that the ruling would go against us," Magnusson argues. "In this affair it has often been forgotten that the player was always registered with West Ham. There was so much [speculation] that was never correct."

He is preparing himself for a final public statement on Tevez this Thursday. Until then, citing legal restrictions and the need "to make a fresh start", he chooses instead to address the view of his manager, Alan Curbishley, that West Ham have become "public enemy No1". Magnusson winces at the changed perception of a club once regarded as a noble academy of English football. "It does hurt me because the club has been dragged into this in a negative way by some of my colleagues. West Ham has been dragged down and I don't think this is correct. This hurts me most, because what a few people decide should not be a burden to the whole club.

"The other sad thing is that Tevez got caught in the middle. He's a great lad, so enthusiastic about football and success, and I would have loved to have seen him [again] in a West Ham shirt. I really tried to make that possible but, as a great player, he had ambitions to play in the Champions League."

West Ham received only £2m for Tevez - with Joorabchian netting a healthy profit for himself - but the club have spent heavily during the off-season. Having paid a possibly inflated £23.5m for Craig Bellamy, Scott Parker, Freddie Ljungberg and the now injured Julian Faubert, Magnusson has been accused of bringing an overheated economy to boiling point. Niall Quinn, Sunderland's chairman, has claimed that, as a result, "agents are having an absolute beano . . . what horrifies me is people who've made money out of property or biscuit tins telling a class act who's managing their club who they should be signing . . ."

"I was very surprised to see this," Magnusson says. "He has done some great things at Sunderland but I think there was more frustration in those remarks than blame on us. I know better - but I have a high regard for Niall Quinn."

In also rejecting criticism of the wages paid at West Ham, Magnusson insists that "the figures have been totally distorted. I don't understand it". The discrepancy arises when reputable sources claim that Parker, Bellamy, Ljungberg and, most astonishingly of all, Lucas Neill are paid £70-72,000 a week whereas Magnusson has said in the past that his top players earn £55,000. He hesitates when asked about that £55,000 ceiling: "Well, we have a basic wage structure and we are there or thereabouts and we don't want to surpass that. That is still the case."

Darren Bent was reputedly offered more money by West Ham than Tottenham Hotspur, for whom he signed in the summer, but the £17m transfer fee offered by Magnusson was truly startling. Is Bent worth £2m more than Thierry Henry? "It's difficult to estimate that. Players like Darren Bent - young, English and with a proven track record that they can score goals - will always be highly prized. If he keeps scoring goals he will still be worth a lot in three years' time. And of course my manager knew all about him. Darren Bent is a very good young man."

Kieron Dyer has a more complicated persona, yet Newcastle United exhibited their own wayward streak last week when the club's new owner, Mike Ashley, scuppered the midfielder's transfer to West Ham by raising the fee from a generous £6m to a bizarre demand for £8m at the last minute. Magnusson is plainly angered.

"It was very unexpected. We thought we had agreed everything with the club and when he'd had a medical everything was finished but we then just got a message from the owner that he wanted a higher price. This is something I have never experienced before in football, because they had already given us permission to speak to the player. So of course I was very disappointed."

Curbishley, at least, has been spared the prospect of reuniting Dyer and Lee Bowyer after their mid-match fisticuffs while team-mates at Newcastle in 2005. He already has enough to cope with in managing a group of players who often appear as interested in their Baby Bentleys and mid-season holidays as Premier League survival.

"Several factors made us pay last season," Magnusson agrees. "I had to do some drastic things to change them." Yet Curbishley's appointment was far from an immediate success. After one victory in eight games, Magnusson concedes that "I was very worried then. I could tell there was something wrong with the club and it took Alan some time to get it right. But I never allowed myself to give up hope and say, OK, we are going to be relegated. When you are chairman the last thing you want to show is desperation or despair. I might have had my own bad feelings during some nights but I always looked optimistic."

One of the more endearing facets of Magnusson's character remains his footballing passion. He regularly visits West Ham internet chat sites - as an observer rather than a participant - in an effort to "grasp the mood of the fans. It is very important to know what people are thinking. In football you deal with people and emotions. It's a much more sentimental business than biscuits or money-market shares.

"That's why the win at Old Trafford on the last day was my sweetest moment. But at the time I was like a deflated balloon. I couldn't even enjoy it until some days had passed because it was unbelievable. It took almost a week for the joy to sink in and understand what we had done."

Everything was different a year ago. "Last August I had no idea I would become involved in the Premiership," the 60-year-old says. "That only started in September and until then I had been thinking of retiring in America. I have some properties there and while I'd been very involved with Uefa and Fifa, and also the Icelandic Association, I was thinking about [retirement] then."

Yet when Magnusson was approached by a consortium led by Tony Cottee he was transfixed. The prospect of entering a high-profile business as consuming as Premier League football swamped the charms of a quiet retreat to America. Cottee and his original partners were replaced by an Icelandic double act in Magnusson and Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, the former footballer turned billionaire banker, as they completed an £85m takeover last November.

"I have a very good partner in Bjorgolfur [who owns 95% of the controlling company, WH Holding]. We have known each other for almost 50 years and this is very important for West Ham to understand - we are together and we have this drive for football.

"It takes time but in two years I think we will be fighting for Uefa and even Champions League positions. The fantasy is that in 10 years we will see the team playing Champions League football regularly in our new stadium. We want to model ourselves on clubs like Barça and Madrid who have great marketing aspects. I think it is possible to compete with this kind of club."

Magnusson barely blinks at the suggestion that a 60,000-seat stadium in London would cost in the region of a quarter of a billion pounds. "That figure is not so far away if you take into account transportation costs. We are waiting at the moment for a decision over a certain piece of land and we will have a decision by the end of the year - but I am sure we will build a new stadium. We have the fan-base to need this capacity."

Magnusson's excitement is palpable. If it sometimes looks as if his bald dome will explode with passion, he insists that "I am in good health because I run whenever I have time. I run for an hour, maybe more. I could run a marathon but I won't - I am so competitive that I would hate it if some youngster passed me. I am going to concentrate instead on being busy with West Ham. This is just the beginning."

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