Friday, 2 January 2009

You Can Leave Your Hat On

They Broke Every Rule.
Desire. Infatuation. Obsession

Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson has just over two months to sell the club before his holding company, Hansa, faces the possibility of being declared insolvent, court papers in his native Iceland have revealed. That's 9½ tempestuous weeks before the ravaged club totters glassy eyed into the street and our Icelandic leader solemnly looks aft from his asset-stripped mansion, counting to 50 and silently mouthing "I love you..."

Gudmundsson has put West Ham on the market in order to pay back debts exceeding £50m that resulted from the collapse of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki, in which he held a 41% stake. Interest has been shown but Gudmundsson, who bought the club for £85m in 2006, is struggling to finalise a deal having initially expected to raise £250m, a figure that, surprise surprise, is proving unrealistic in the current financial climate. This is something he needs to overcome by early March when, according to documents seen by the Guardian, court officials will reconvene in Reykjavik to decide if Hansa is in a position to repay its creditors, or has to be declared insolvent and subsequently stripped of its assets, including West Ham.

Should the worse come to the worst, reports Sachin Nakrani, the club could then be placed in administration in order to keep it alive. If that should come to pass, the Premier League has confirmed West Ham would be hit with an immediate points deduction. "Any club within the division that suffers an insolvency event will automatically receive a nine-point sporting sanction," a spokesman said.

The most pressing of Hansa's creditors is the Reykjavik-based MP Investment Bank, which is owed 5.4% of the company's overall debt. At a 10 December hearing, representatives for MP argued that Hansa's financial problems "are completely insurmountable ones and it is certain that their payment difficulties are not temporary but permanent … The only real reason why Hansa wished for a payment cessation was to prevent the creditors collecting their claims, which would quickly have bankrupted the company." A spokesman for MP this week confirmed it will again call for Hansa to be declared insolvent when the parties reconvene in March if West Ham has not been sold.

Hansa was initially able to obtain breathing space by assuring the courts that it could generate substantial funds from selling West Ham. Hansa said it had already made contact with prospective owners and could generate up to £250m from any sale. It compared the situation to the sale of Manchester City, for £230m, saying that West Ham was worth more because of its "London location, its loyal supporters, its proximity to the Olympic Village and the fact that the club owns its own field". But there has been little progress towards a takeover in recent weeks, partly due to Christmas but also because the respective parties have not been able to agree on a fee. As many as nine potential buyers are said by the West Ham insiders to have shown an interest in the club and Gudmundsson, who is now permanently based in Reykjavik and maintains contact with Upton Park via his vice-chairman Asgeir Fridgeirsson, hopes discussions regarding a sale will speed up now the holiday period is over.

Even so, sources close to Gudmundsson admitted this week that £250m has become an unrealistic figure and that if he is to finalise a deal in the coming months, an offer closer to half of that will almost certainly have to be accepted. "It is very difficult to sell any football club right now, it is hard to maximise value," the source said. "But Mr Gudmundsson will not accept an unsatisfactory amount, he is prepared to wait for the right offer to come along." He also said Hansa had options for paying back creditors other than selling West Ham.

Such financial uncertainty puts the club's manager, Gianfranco Zola, in a difficult position. The club's chief executive, Scott Duxbury, has insisted the Italian is not under pressure to sell any players, but he has been told by Gudmundsson that any purchases during the just-opened transfer window can only be made by selling first. Zola is open to the possibility of cashing in on Craig Bellamy, who has scored just eight goals for the club following his £7.5m move from Liverpool in July 2007, but wants more than the £6m Spurs bid for the player in order to finance his own purchases. To generate funds, Zola is also prepared to let a number of fringe players, such as Julien Faubert and Luis Boa Morte, leave this month.

In the meantime, United are said to be considering a revised offer from Manchester City for Scott Parker last night, after an initial joint £15 million bid for the midfield player and Craig Bellamy was turned down. According to an article in the Times, City are thought to have offered about £8 million for Parker, who has returned to fitness and form during this campaign after being sidelined on three separate occasions for extended periods with a knee injury last season. Gary Jacobs reports that Parker, who has made 19 appearances in all competitions this season, has not been angling for a move, but his £75,000-a-week wages are problematic for West Ham, who are trying to cut costs.

Parker moved to Upton Park for £7 million from Newcastle United 18 months ago to be reunited with Alan Curbishley, his former manager at Charlton Athletic. Gianfranco Zola has suggested that the player is worthy of a recall to the England squad, despite not having featured for the national team since the 2-0 defeat away to Croatia in a European Championship qualifying match in October 2006.

The Daily Mail are in agreement that Parker is wanted by City, but they think he is still being targeted as one half of a double swoop involving Bellamy. The big-spending Manchester club are reported to be preparing to test United's resolve by increasing their bid for both to around £16million within the next few days.

Although West Ham are up for sale, chief executive Scott Duxbury has continually denied the club will try to cash in on their best players during the transfer window, while offering the slight caveat: "Each approach will be considered in terms of fee, fitness, form and where the manager thinks the player is in his career. Similarly we have to consider whether the player is committed to what we are trying to achieve. It may be we have an offer which makes perfect sporting sense on all these factors but it will only be accepted if we have a replacement lined up who will improve the squad." Plenty of scope then for semantic jousting when the inevitable departures begin.

The Mail 'understands' that Bellamy is keen to link up again with his former Wales boss at Eastlands, while Parker has also expressed a wish to talk to City, although he is more settled at Upton Park. Of course, Gianfranco Zola will be reluctant to lose either player but it is reported could be placated by the signing of adequate replacements. At this point it remains unclear how the word 'adequate' should be interpreted in this case, and whether a last minute loan deal for an unknown reserve team player from the lower levels of a second rate league will tick the same boxes for the management team as it will at boardroom level.

In another cost-cutting measure, captain Lucas Neill could be set to make a move to Turkish side Galatasaray, according to several reports. Neill, 30, who moved to Upton Park from Blackburn Rovers in January 2007, has six months remaining on his West Ham contract, and the club have supposedly told Galatasaray the defender can leave if the Turks agree to pay the final part of his £70,000-per-week deal. However despite the interest it remains likely Neill will see out the final months of his contract and take his time to pick a new club in the summer.

Neill, who has made 46 international appearances for Australia, was appointed West Ham captain in July 2007 following the departure of Nigel Reo-Coker to Aston Villa: he has scored once in 68 appearances for the side. The Telegraph states West Ham's reported willingness to release their club captain is another sign of the troubles facing the Upton Park outfit, although Scott Duxbury continues to put on a brace face. In an interview on the official site yesterday, Duxbury is quoted as saying: "We must not be afraid of interest in, or bids for, our leading players. Each approach will be considered in terms of fee, fitness, form and where the manager thinks the player is in his career. We have to consider the will of the player and if he is committed to what we are trying to achieve."

Finally, young West Ham United full-back Joe Widdowson as joined Grimsby Town on loan. The 19-year-old has agreed a one-month deal with the Lincolnshire club in a bid to gain first team experience. He will go straight into the squad for Grimsby's game at Barnet and could start in place of Tom Newey who is struggling with injury. Widdowson played three games while on loan at Rotherham last season.

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