Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A Litany Of Woes

"I will not be as those who spend the day in complaining of headache, and the night in drinking the wine that gives it"

Was there ever a Premier League club with so far-fetched a litany of woes as West Ham United? ponders football finance expert David Conn in this morning's Guardian. In his column on the paper's SportBlog, he writes:

The old East End family club must concentrate on improving performances on the pitch — if only to take their minds off the Icelandic banking meltdown, which has hammered the owner's fortune and led to West Ham being for sale in an uninviting market, the compensation claim in the Tevez saga, which Sheffield United are understood still to put at £50m, and another Premier League and Football Association inquiry focusing on West Ham's conduct when they fielded the over-performing Argentinian in the final three games of 2006-07.

To these agonies can be added the looming threat, if West Ham are found to have breached the rules when they retained Tevez, that points could be deducted. Although the end of the inquiry is months away, an FA spokesman confirmed that a points deduction was one of the available sanctions . West Ham, on top of everything else, can barely contemplate relegation.

The club would argue that, even if they are found culpable — a possibility they reject — points deduction would amount to double punishment because Lord Griffiths has already ruled against them over their retention of Tevez. In his arbitration ruling Griffiths said West Ham breached the undertaking they gave to the Premier League in April 2007 that they would cancel their contract with Tevez's "owners". Instead Griffiths agreed that the club's chief executive, Scott Duxbury, had a series of "oral cuddles" in which he reassured the owners, two offshore companies represented by Kia Joorabchian, that they would, despite what Duxbury had promised the Premier League, still retain the rights to the player.
Of course, West Ham are already being sanctioned for that, forced to compensate Sheffield United for the cost of relegation. The Blades are understood to have finalised a financial inventory detailing their losses, to which West Ham have until the end of the month to respond. They dispute the figure of £50m, noting the increased income from Premier League status is mostly swallowed up by higher player wages. Griffiths will decide in March, barring delays.

West Ham say they have "nothing to hide" and that they "acted in good faith" — attitudes, notes Conn, which would have served them well from the off. He argues had they come clean to the Premier League about the "third party ownership" when they signed Tevez and Javier Mascherano in August 2006, none of this scandal would have unfolded. Yet the club's conduct seems to have been skewed, throughout, by 'trying to be a little too cute'. Paul Aldridge, then the club's chief executive, informed Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, there were no documents relevant to the players' registrations which he had not shown the league. Records reveal the third party contracts came to light when Mascherano moved to Liverpool in January 2007, because they showed the Premier League everything. Scudamore fumed that West Ham had misled him; and disciplinary proceedings began.

For Conn, the maddening aspect of this for West Ham is that, if Aldridge and Duxbury, then the club's legal director, had shown Scudamore the arrangements, they were likely to have been asked for only minor alterations. The Premier League allowed Mascherano's third party "ownership" to continue when he went to Liverpool, insisting only that the loan be for a fixed period and that the "owners" did not retain any rights during the loan. When Tevez eventually moved to Manchester United, a fixed period was again insisted on; Tevez remains a loan player at Old Trafford and under the "ownership" of Joorabchian's investors. Conn continues:

Yet West Ham chose not to disclose the contracts at all. Even after being charged they argued their innocence, until shortly before the hearing, when they pleaded guilty. Aldridge was outraged that he was denounced as a liar in the judgment without an opportunity to state his case. He maintained he acted on advice that third party contracts were not relevant to Tevez's registration. West Ham, guilty, were handed their record £5.5m fine in April 2007, yet continued to attract more trouble. They were given three options: relinquish Tevez; keep him and negotiate a different arrangement with Joorabchian; or rip up the ownership contract and keep him. They chose to say they had ripped it up, although few understood how they could keep Tevez for free.

It was then, according to Graham Shear, Joorabchian's lawyer, that Duxbury gave the "oral cuddles," telling Joorabchian that the contract was not really torn up, and that the "owners" retained their rights. Tevez stayed, played magnificently, West Ham stayed up and the Blades went down roaring at the injustice. West Ham deny the "oral cuddles" testimony, arguing they did rip up the contract. They point to the fact Joorabchian sued in summer 2007 for Tevez to be released, and ultimately paid West Ham £2m — a process intimately supervised by the Premier League. Griffiths, though, accepted Shear's view of events. The forthcoming FA and Premier League inquiry will examine exactly the same evidence.

Faced with all this, observes Conn, West Ham are maintaining their brave front. The owner, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, has been battered by Iceland's economic collapse but Asgeir Fridgeirsson, West Ham's vice-chairman, insists the club is safe. The holding company, Hansa, has been granted a moratorium on paying its creditors and must report back to an Icelandic court on 6 March to show progress in selling the club. Fridgeirsson, though, now says the club need not necessarily be sold. "If the market does not appreciate the value of the club, we will not sell," he said. Fridgeirsson emphasised that Gudmundsson was not taking money out of the club to service the needs of Hansa or any other debts, and that the manager, Gianfranco Zola, and Duxbury do not need to have a fire sale. West Ham have refused to sell Scott Parker or Craig Bellamy for below a handsome price.

"The club has to balance its books, which is normal practice in any business," said Fridgeirsson. "However, the idea is not to sell players and go into a downward spiral." He acknowledged the final pay-out to Sheffield United was "a question mark over the club's valuation" but said West Ham would not be forced into insolvency. Fridgeirsson said there were still parties interested in buying the club. The final word goes to Conn...

West Ham fans can only hope that this defiant talk, of stability in a sea of troubles, is the truth, not just wishful thinking by beleaguered directors blowing pretty bubbles in the air.

Amusingly, the fall-out from the Carlos Tevez affair has led to a further protest from Sheffield United, this time over Sky Sports’ coverage of the saga on their Goals on Sunday programme last weekend. Co-presenter Ian Payne’s said the latest investigation — into West Ham’s conduct after their £5million fine — was due to Sheffield United and West Ham still fighting over what legal action could or could not be taken. This apparently so infuriated the Sheffield United board that they immediately complained to programme producer Adam Chenery about Payne’s comments, which were described as nonsensical.

This comes after Payne and Chenery’s predecessors on the show, Clare Tomlinson and Nigel Dean, were replaced after former Hammers goalkeeper Stephen Bywater was allowed to spell out the C-word on air without a reprimand (see video below!). Sky Sports would not comment on the latest set-to apart from confirming the complaint from Bramall Lane.

On the transfer front, the Telegraph is carrying an article about how Manchester City's January spending spree is heading for anti-climax. Backed by the oil billions of Abu Dhabi and linked with a host of football's biggest names, the transfer window was supposed to see City reveal themselves as the game's new powerhouse. Yet the club's negotiating position, insiders admit, has been weakened considerably by their very public takeover by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. West Ham are said to be one of several clubs holding out for top dollar for their star men, safe in the knowledge that inflated fees will not scare away Hughes and chief executive Garry Cook. The price mentioned in the piece is £12 million for Craig Bellamy and the same for Scott Parker, while it is understood that Blackburn are asking for more than £18 million for Santa Cruz. In effect, City's wealth will force them to pay £15 million extra to two clubs in dire need of cash to swell their coffers.

The Telegraph concludes that the deals for Bellamy, Parker and Santa Cruz, currently at an impasse, are still likely to be completed before the window closes. West Ham and Blackburn are, essentially, employing the same technique as the one used by Tottenham to make sure Manchester United paid the full asking price for Dimitar Berbatov. A small piece in the Times states City are expected to agree a deal to sign Bellamy for about £12 million this week after preparing an improved bid for the Wales forward last night. It also suggests Mark Hughes has given up hope of signing Scott Parker. A snippet in the Independent reveals Bellamy's representatives met West Ham yesterday and are understood to have said that at the age of 29 he should not be held back by a valuation of £15m, the figure at which the Hammers are reportedly ready to sell.

The Mail claims Birmingham are in talks with the club to sign defender Calum Davenport, whose £3million switch to Bolton is off. West Ham have already loaned midfielders Nigel Quashie and Lee Bowyer to Birmingham this season. Speaking of Quashie, Newcastle United manager Joe Kinnear has denied reports linking him with a move for the much maligned midfielder. Yesterday's Mirror printed a story claiming that the cash-strapped North East club were looking to sign the former West Brom midfielder in a deal worth around £500,000. However that suggestion was laughed off by Kinnear, who informed reporters: "There has been talk about us signing Nigel Quashie but there is no truth in it whatsoever, so you can kick that into touch."

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