Friday, 22 January 2010

Hard Cases, Soft Centres

The takeover of West Ham United by David Sullivan and David Gold is a big moment for the Barclays Premier League, whether you’re a fan of the club or not. Writing in this morning's Times, Tony Cascarino believes it could mark the start of a new set of takeovers by owners who are realistic and sensible, instead of the dreamers or leeches that have gone before. "I expect there’ll be a rash of takeovers in the coming years as existing owners try to get out of football after discovering it isn’t the cash cow they expected," he states. "Sullivan talking about West Ham having a £110 million debt and Portsmouth’s plight are wake-up calls for the game. The level of debt is so horrifying that the Premier League must act by increasing its regulation of clubs’ finances. A tighter grip on clubs’ balance sheets by the authorities – and Uefa are doing their bit by trying to exclude clubs that are heavily in debt from the Champions League – is surely the way forward."

The very public problems at Portsmouth could be all the excuse the Premier League need to get more involved thinks Cascarino, just as West Ham’s flirtation with disaster could do for football what the credit crunch has done to the financial industry – force tighter regulation and more careful borrowing after years of irresponsible behaviour. "Salaries of £70-80,000 a week at clubs such as Portsmouth and West Ham? Madness," he writes. "Portsmouth and West Ham owing so much after all the talent they’ve sold? Unbelievable."

I love gambling but I know that you never risk everything. You don’t put all your assets on the line. But this is what Premier League clubs seem to have been doing, mortgaging themselves to the hilt or overspending to the limit and beyond. At stadiums across the country it’s been football on the pitch and Russian roulette in the boardroom.

Given the amount of television money handed to clubs just for being in the Premier League, it’s ridiculous that they should get themselves into such deep trouble. Clubs have been careless and over-confident. Their owners must be held to account. And it’s not just aspiring clubs the size of West Ham, Portsmouth or Hull City – giants such as Manchester United and Liverpool have been revealed to be heavily in debt and financially stretched.

The big clubs will be safe in the end, of course. There will always be someone ready to bail out or buy a Manchester United or Liverpool. I reckon they’ll both have new owners within a couple of years. But the likes of Portsmouth? It wouldn’t surprise me if they went into administration soon and lost nine points automatically, sealing their relegation. Maybe then other clubs would sit up and take serious notice. Football obviously didn’t learn from the decline and fall of Leeds United. Perhaps the game needs another reminder of the perils of overspending.

Going forward Cascarino still expects the biggest stars to attract massive and growing wages, but insists the Premier League will be more like American sports, where the elite players earn ten times what the rank and file get. "Clubs will still pay out £100,000 a week to the household names, but they won’t be shelling out £50,000 a week to players who are relatively ordinary," he concludes. "Squad sizes will be smaller – why does any club need 35 professionals? And youth players will be given more of a chance. Football will still be lucrative, but it’ll be more realistic and accountable."

Dans une veine similaire John Dillon in the Express is amused by the fact West Ham were sold on the same day as Cadbury this week. "Can’t you see the similarities?" he asks. "Soft-centred. Everyone’s other favourites, outside of London anyway. A wonderful confection on their day, but only after the really powerful football clubs have gobbled up the game’s big dinners first. Yes, there are still some nutters in the crowd, as the recent riot against Millwall confirms. But then everyone gets stuck with a few hard toffees in the Roses at Christmas. It is not all sweetness at Upton Park."

Dillon could well have added that David Sullivan announced his arrival dressed as a dizzying mix of Strawberry Dream and Hazel in Caramel. How best to deliver an 'understated' media address after buying a Premier League football club? wonders the Telegraph's David Edbrooke. It’s a difficult dilemma, and one that David Sullivan, the shy, retiring porn magnate and new co-owner of West Ham was doubtless pondering until the small hours this week. "Having taken time to consider his tactics he donned a velvet claret jacket that in your local Tesco Express would, without doubt, glean several glances from distracted shoppers," notes Ebrooke. "But wearing one inside Upton Park would be akin to a canny badger darting across the camera during filming of little-known Sixties television programme Spot the Wildlife, knowing full well that most viewers had black and white TV sets."

Clearly, Sullivan knew that inside Upton Park, colour-coded as it is in the famous claret (and blue), he would go virtually unseen, just as long as he was enveloped in that matching jacket. For Edbrooke, the tricky bit would be announcing his arrival at the ground in little more than a whisper. For this he would need an equally understated mode of transport. "He knew what to do," he muses. "He’d turn up in a sparkling blue Rolls Royce. Why, who would ever know it was him? With the Rolls’ blacked-out windows and cultured exhaust note, surely no one would see or hear him coming?

As Brendan Behan once observed, all publicity is good, except an obituary notice. Sullivan's arrival was purposely brash and his stark message of cataclysmic financial mismanagement even louder, as if calculated, says Dillon, to warn the Premier League to stop playing dumb and get much tougher in protecting our football institutions from chancer foreign speculators. If it is legally difficult, the Government can help. If they can save the banks, they can protect football teams which are potent symbols of this country’s heritage at a time when our society is fracturing all around us. There is rightful outrage over the sale of Cadbury, which is also a national institution, to the American giant Kraft, says Dillon. It is being financed in the same way as the Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United. By borrowing money, then piling the debt on the company. United will never go out of business. They just might not win the Champions League again.

But West Ham, a tiny club in comparison and with no global reach, could conceivably have gone bust following all of the financial chaos wrought there by the previous owners, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and his hyperactive bald henchman Eggert Magnusson. The Icelanders bought the place off the back of a reckless inflation of money markets, partly brought on by their country’s decision to play roulette with the world economy.

Then when the collapse came, there was nothing but a big hole, made worse by profligate, speculative spending. They nearly sent West Ham into oblivion. It will be tough for the Premier League and its boss Richard Scudamore to buck the idea that the free market still rules, especially after so many fat years of the football boom. And they cannot be expected to regulate the day-to-day operations of the clubs too closely, as they are independent companies. Anyway, some are well run.

But Scudamore is paid a fortune. Surely he can come up with some way to protect the supporters of smaller concerns like West Ham and, admittedly chaotic, Portsmouth from being the playthings of foreigners who still see our game as a leveraged shortcut to easy riches. Except for when things go wrong and they cut out, leaving massive debts behind.

Fortunately for West Ham, says Dillon, they are now in the hands of smart business operators who will not run the place like a casino. It could have been depressingly different. Even though Upton Park is stable again, it has been soul-destroying just to see it placed in the city’s equivalent of the Pound Shop, put up as a quick offload by some faceless holding company in Reykjyavik.

I believe that some supporters thought the club were being given money by Gudmundsson, rather than loaned it. It is a common delusion whenever there is a takeover because fans are only too eager to have their fantasies financed, whatever the cost. Sadly, too many fans are in a fever about spending. Whipped along by the game’s hype machine, all that some seem interested in is a constant turnover of new signings. What about custom and tradition? Evolution not revolution.

There has to be ambition, but too many West Ham fans were dazzled by Magnusson’s big talk and forgot everything the club stood for. It infuriated that so many were so careless. In recent years, it has not felt like my team anymore. They had been made soulless. Everyone thinks their club are unique. That is why it is so painful when the chancers take them away. It is a hollow feeling. Happily, it is time for West Ham and I to become mates again.

While chatter abounds of £100,000-a-week wages for special players, West Ham United may have already landed two of the best signings possible in the transfer window, according to Harry Redknapp. In his column in today's Sun, the former Hammers manager states: "It's brilliant news for the club, the fans and the whole of football that David Sullivan and David Gold have bought half the club with an option to take over completely in four years. It may sound like a cliched script from EastEnders but to have West Ham back in the hands of people from the area will be a major boost to them and also makes a stand in the game as a whole."

Redknapp laments that foreign players have taken over on the pitch, and that more and more foreign managers are running the biggest clubs, but at least, he says, a stand is being made in the boardroom. "I liked it when Sullivan opened his heart and declared: 'We are not the King of Saudi Arabia or a Russian like Roman Abramovich. We are British,'" he said. "Sullivan went on to say he believes his former club Birmingham really should belong to someone from the second city. But it doesn't. That saddens me. We are seeing a tide of owners from abroad snapping up clubs which once stood for the town and were in the hands of local people."

Tottenham has a British chairman and that facilitates smoother communication between dressing room and the directors. "The people above me understand the English game, the fans, how it's not just a hard business of numbers and that people's affections are involved too," writes Redknapp. "This is not some jingoistic rant. Foreign footballers have given us so much. But no one wants the very essence of the British game eroded completely and a balance must be struck. Which is what might just have happened in E13 and it is encouraging to see a Union Jack fluttering in the Premier League." David Gold was born just a few dozen yards from the Boleyn Ground, while Sullivan was brought up in Hornchurch, nowadays the heartland of Hammers territory. "I believe they will steadily turn West Ham around," states Redknapp. "They have already made a great start by backing the manager Gianfranco Zola. Too often we witness takeovers and, for some inexplicable reason, a perfectly good manager gets the boot."

Of course, Saviours come in many forms. Sometimes they are simple carpenters with healing hands. Other times they are bubble permed fantasists who deal only in black and white. And then there are those who appear out of electric blue Rolls-Royces wearing claret coloured velour smoking jackets bought and paid for by men who go shopping in stores with no external windows and a fine line in onanistic apparel. In these difficult times one cannot pick and chose one’s messiah exclaims the Bung, and David Sullivan, the recently installed owner of West Ham, appears to have his heart and his wallet in the right place.

The deal to see him returned to East Laaandan, the sound of Bow bells ringing in his shell like, he claimed, made “no commercial sense at all". It was a decision made by the heart rather than the head. The club are in the kind of debt that in other industries would qualify them for a bumper pay out from the treasury. He would not be waving a magic wand. Merely steadying the ship and planning for the long haul. But a man with the kind of sartorial devil may care attitude to rival Eddie Izzard is not going to be all prudence and straight thinking for long. His natural showmanship could not be suppressed for more than two days before he was talking as loudly as he dresses about marquee signings, exceptional circumstances and a wild punt on a nag that we all thought had long since been put out to stud.

“We can carry one exceptional player who would make a difference on that wage,” stated Sullivan. But would he really make a difference? Probably yes. He may have the kind of pace these days that would give Dean Windass an even chance of beating him in a hundred yard dash, especially if it was to the chippy, but he's been there and done it all before. Van Nistelrooy’s goal scoring prowess has never been questioned. At PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United and Real Madrid, before his legs went and the club shelled out on a phalanx of attacking talent who could actually still run for more than five minutes without needing a rest, he filled his boots like few others.

At the age of 33 the Dutchman’s best days are behind him. But with no transfer fee to be paid the deal is not as highly priced as it first sounds and with West Ham facing the prospect of relegation, a handful of goals from the old stagger may well be enough to avoid that calamity. Sullivan’s judgement, at least when it comes to whistle and flutes and flash motors, may not be one you would instantly think to trust, but he may well be backing the right horse this time round.

David Sullivan insists he remains hopeful of signing Van Nistelrooy - despite emerging reports suggesting the Dutch striker is set to snub a return to England. The player is also said to be interesting among others Tottenham and SV Hamburg, although neither are so far offering the kind of wages West Ham have committed to. "We know Spurs wanted him but we have offered far more money," confirmed Sullivan. "You could say it doesn't make sense because I have been critical of others who have overspent at this club, but that is missing the point. There has to be different wages for different players, and if we have identified one special player, and strikers are special, we have to pay the going rate to get him. And even offering as much as we have done, we are still competing with one foreign club. It's now down to us and a foreign club, and I believe we shall know in the next 72 hours, but they have a big advantage. We are lumbered with a 50% tax rate, the pound is weak against the euro, so it doesn't make it particularly attractive for a foreign player. But Van Nistelrooy wants to come back to the Premier League so we do have a fighting chance, and we are waiting to hear. But we also have a fallback position or two, because we have identified the need for at least one striker."

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