Friday, 10 August 2007

Steely Determination

Magnusson faces life after the storm with steely determination
By Martin Samuel

In the post Carlos Tévez era, West Ham United will not be garnering much sympathy from neutrals this season. Eggert Magnússon, the club’s chairman, chose the eve of the new campaign, however, to offer an insight into how modern football works and a tale to suggest that his was not the only club to lose their moral compass last time around.

Luis Boa Morte joined West Ham from Fulham for £5.5 million on January 5. Yet when the teams played each other in the league on January 13, Magnússon said that West Ham were under pressure not to select the new signing. Fulham demanded that Boa Morte did not play against them, but they could not make this a written condition of the deal because it would have broken Premier League rules on third-party interference. Instead, it was to be framed as a gentlemen’s agreement, the same form of private understanding that kept Tim Howard out of the Everton team against Manchester United and stopped Steve Kabba playing for Wat-ford against Sheffield United. Fulham were not happy that West Ham reneged on the arrangement and Mo-hamed Al Fayed, the club’s chairman, joined a legal campaign against West Ham led by Sheffield United, who were relegated. That campaign was for fairness.

So what does this say about Magnússon? First, that behind the elf-like exterior he is capable of playing hard-ball. Secondly, that anyone who thinks that only one top-flight club failed to act in good faith last season is probably the sort who falls for that line about gullible not being in the dictionary. After a season of confrontation, Magnússon is doing his best to be diplomatic, with varying levels of success. "It seems to me that things have happened to suggest we were not the only club that was wrong," he said. "Yes, Fulham asked us not to play Luis Boa Morte against them and we played him, of course. How can you sign a player for £5.5 million and not play him? Come on, it’s crazy. I cannot comment on why other clubs accepted those arrangements, but the Premier League will deal with these things now because it has been brought into the daylight. Fulham attempted an outside influence on our team, of course they did." January 12, 2008, is their next meeting, if you are interested.

Before that, Magnússon will welcome Dave Whelan, the equally vocal Wigan Athletic chairman, to Upton Park, on August 25. "Some of my colleagues have been trying to damage the image of my club," Magnússon said. "But they were not there when I attended the Premier League AGM this summer. Not Dave Whelan, not Steve Gibson, of Middlesbrough, the critics did not show, I was surprised. So I did not feel that West Ham were not welcome, not at all. And Al Fayed was not there. But I got a letter from him that said it all anyway. He didn’t need to be there." There will inevitably be a hangover of ill will, but Magnússon is hoping to draw a line under the Tévez affair before tomorrow’s match against Manchester City.

Terence Brown, the former West Ham chairman who entered into the infamous third-party agreements, is no longer welcome at Upton Park and Magnússon will not rule out legal action against him. The £2 million bona fide litigation settlement paid by Media Sports Investments, the owners of Tévez’s economic rights, went through on Wednesday and, having settled all legal bills from a variety of claimants, the club intend to place the remaining £500,000 with the Football Foundation, ring-fenced for the development of mini-pitches in the London Borough of Newham. Some will say that it is the least they can do, others that they did not have to do anything. Either way, inner-city children get football pitches. Make of it what you will.

What concerns Magnússon more is the accusation that West Ham have interfered with football’s financial bio-rhythms with their forays into the transfer market. There was an outcry last season when Lucas Neill, the Blackburn Rovers full back, chose Upton Park ahead of Anfield and while this summer has been marked as much by high-profiles failures, Darren Bent and Kieron Dyer, as successes, the club were still accused by Niall Quinn, the Sunderland chairman, of recklessly inflating wages and fees. This was before he paid £9 million for a Scottish goalkeeper, naturally. "It is very easy to blame foreign owners for all that is wrong with English football," Magnússon said. "But I think it is strange when people say we are spending a lot of money and then they complain there are the same four clubs in the top places all the time. How will that change unless a club has ambition? Everybody should be pleased that somebody is trying to stop it because this is not a healthy situation for the Premier League.

"It would be good if you could just get up there with effort, but that is not possible. It costs money because the teams that are already there receive money each year from Uefa for playing in the Champions League. We will run the club in a healthy way, combining business and ambition, but you have to invest. It will take time, but I think it is possible to challenge the top four. You need a big stadium, though, because maybe in ten years it will even be difficult to be in the Premier League if you do not have a ground for at least 50,000.”

What remains to be seen is whether Alan Curbishley, the manager, getting his first opportunity at a club with financial clout, has the presence to match Magnússon’s ambitions. Masterminding the great escape has bought him at least one season, but the underlying message is that the manager has to adapt quickly to a financial change of circumstances, too. "Alan has to show he has got what it takes to go the next step," Magnússon said. "I think he has. At Charlton Athletic he did not have the money, so he has to prove a lot of new things with us. But there must have been a reason he was in the reckoning to be the England manager, a lot of qualities that I hope will come through with West Ham. Tomorrow is the first time we can say we are putting our team out. It was no secret there was a lot going on in the dressing-room last year, players we needed to get rid of. Whether it was down to individuals or the group as a whole, changes had to be made. There was unrest and things that should not have happened, and that was not good for team spirit. It is a happy dressing-room now."

A happier boardroom, too? "I feel very healthy," Magnússon said. "But when I go back to Iceland for a day, people come up to me and say, 'Eggert, you look very tired, you should get some holiday.' "No time for that now. Maybe a weekend away later in the year. January 12 looks nice.

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