Friday, 12 February 2010

Money Can’t Buy You Love.

If David Sullivan was playing mind games with West Ham United’s players when he criticised their salaries and questioned their manager’s style, then he gambled and won, writes Alyson Rudd in this morning's Times. The team’s 2-0 Barclays Premier League victory over Birmingham City was notable for the emotion generated by the players and their clear support for Gianfranco Zola after the West Ham co-chairman’s scathing assessments. It is clear, reports the Guardian's Paul Doyle, where their allegiances will lie if discord between him and the club's new regime develops into a major split.

Zola and Sullivan clashed very publicly this week when the Italian expressed dismay over the co-owner's decision to announce swingeing pay cuts before Wednesday's crucial encounter at Upton Park. Sullivan had also cast doubt on Zola's ability to succeed as a manager, comparing him to the former Tottenham Hotspur manager Ossie Ardiles, who was deemed a failure, and suggesting he was "too nice" to take tough decisions. Though Sullivan subsequently declared that he was "100%" behind Zola and that the Italian was not in imminent danger of being dismissed, a feeling persists that West Ham's new regime is contemplating replacing him in a bid to ensure Premier League survival.

Certainly Scott Parker, the pulsing heartbeat of the team, believes it is plausible that Sullivan was toying with the team. He revealed that Zola had indeed spoken to his squad about Sullivan's comments before the Birmingham game. "He let us know his feelings," Parker said. "[Sullivan] knows the situation and if he feels it's best to say what he's saying, that's it. Sometimes people say things to get a reaction, you could look at it as reverse psychology. But I don't know if it was that." He also warned that West Ham must continue to improve if they are to remain clear of the relegation zone, and admitted that, irrespective of the manager, sometimes the players are too nice. "You know what you get from us: we're a good passing side, we're pretty," he said . "But we've got to do the dirty stuff, the ugly stuff to build a platform."

On Wednesday West Ham's players were motivated to do that ugly stuff as they put forward a strong case for Zola by producing a tenacious display to pull a point clear of the relegation zone. The Italian midfielder Alessandro Diamanti scored the first goal and celebrated, pointedly, by charging to hug his compatriot on the sidelines. Most of his team-mates did likewise. "We are all behind the boss," Diamanti said. "He works very hard and is a top guy and is always the one who takes responsibility when we don't play well. He is always there for us, always encouraging us and always on our side. We don't forget this, so I was extremely pleased to win and when I scored, my first thought was for the boss." Diamanti was the catalyst for the success when Parker's mazy run was brought to an end with the foul by Scott Dann. Both Diamanti and Mido wanted to take the free-kick but the goalscorer would not be denied. "I was ready to cut off his hands if he had tried to pick up the ball," said Diamanti. "We had so much will to win this game," he added. "We had been trying hard to win the last few games. It didn't happen but there was so much anger in the team to win this one."

Zola appreciated the gesture by Diamanti but insists his players were not sending a defiant message to the club's new co-owners as they mobbed the Italian coach. Instead, he was anxious to draw a line under his spat with David Sullivan and while he 'appreciated' the gesture, the Italian was adamant there was nothing sinister in it. "It was just a celebration because we are going through a difficult moment and we want to stick together, there was no other message than we are together - the players and the staff," stated Zola. "We want the team to succeed. We are in a position we don't like and want to improve it and that's the way I took it. We care about this club and want to be successful. It was a good gesture and I appreciated it. It means we are all going in the same direction and it is vital to do well. The important thing is that we won the game. It is important we win games and win well and that we are a unit. That is the most important message we send to everybody. It is the end of the story. I am motivated and driven to do well for this team and that is the most important thing."

Whatever additional drama West Ham conjure up between now and May, Zola knows ­unequivocally he can rely on his players for the long battle against relegation, writes Frank Wiechula in the Express. Diamanti’s magical first goal, and the spontaneous display of exuberance and affection as the players leapt on Zola, said everything any owner ever needed to know about what his team feel about the manager and their spirit. No amount of discussion on prospective collective pay cuts, or financial Armageddon, or whether nice guys can win, could have elicited that passionate, genuine reaction. Money can’t buy you love.

Man-of-the-match Parker is no stranger to the real-life soap opera that is a Premier League football club. Skipper Parker summed up the collective mood after a priceless win which took these EastEnders out of the bottom three and could have such a significant bearing on their final 13 matches. "The celebration? It was such a relief," he said. "We needed to be the first to score – it was crucial. Everyone has massive respect for the manager and we’re all pushing in the same direction. Nothing was planned, it was just the emotion coming out. There was no message, we just want him to do well, he’s a good man." Midfielder Parker, again inspirational against Birmingham, added: "We had a bad result at Burnley in the previous match. The rest of it – what’s happened over the last few days – is just the way West Ham are. As a player you have to be thick-skinned and remember your job is to win matches. We’re going to receive criticism because of our league position and rightly so. We shouldn’t be where we are. We need to take it on the chin and keep getting results. We’ve been unlucky but how many times can you say that? We’ve got the squad, so we should be pushing up the league."

The obvious exception to Sullivan’s rule about player wages needing a trim is Mido, who is on a basic salary of £1,000 per week. "We are fully behind the manager," the Egypt striker said. "I haven’t fought long for him, but I can see how everyone loves him around the place. He’s a great character and the players wanted to fight for him." Mido, whose work ethic was often questioned during previous spells at Tottenham, Wigan and Middlesbrough, said that such talk is unfair, and that he is determined to succeed at West Ham beyond his current three-month loan deal. "I've never had a problem with my attitude. I have moved around a lot of clubs, that's why this reputation came to me. But everywhere I've been I've worked hard in every training session, every game," he said. "Look at Robbie Keane, he's had so many clubs. Some players accept not playing and still getting paid. I'm not one of them. Hopefully this will be my last club. The last week I've been here I've been happy and hopefully at the end of the three months I will be here longer."

David Gold described the victory over Birmingham, the club he previously owned, as "a quite surreal but an amazing experience" now that he helps to run the side he supported as a youngster. "Very few people experience that in their lives," he said. "One minute you are rooting for the club you have been involved with for 17 years and then a few months later you are rooting back for your old team. It is extremely unusual but it has been an amazing experience and it feels great. You talk about the fear with the fans and that has been one of the big problems. The fans, players and management are nervous. Everybody is nervous and it is really hard to handle. What changes it completely is that victory."

And for his part, David Sullivan has told West Ham's players: "If you don't like me, I don't care". In today's Sun, the Hammers' co-owner insists his outburst at the squad this week was just mind games, designed to dig the club out of trouble. "It was the last resort," he said. "I had to say something to galvanise people into action because our results and displays just hadn't been good enough. There's still a lot of hard work to do but I'm really pleased with the way the team has responded. If it was so the players could stick two fingers up at me on behalf of the manager then great. At least it means we'll keep winning. It's dangerous but then the situation at West Ham is dangerous too. I've been accused of bad timing but I believe it was the best possible timing because look at the response it got. Whether that's totally down to what I said we'll never know - and the manager and players deserve lots of credit for the way they played. But laying things on the line is a tactic I've used before. I did it in the last game of last season at Birmingham when they needed to beat Reading to get automatic promotion. It worked then and it seems to have worked again."

West Ham are £110million in debt and Sullivan and joint-owner David Gold must cut costs to keep the club afloat. After just one win in 24 games, the highly-paid players became a prime target. Sullivan maintains Zola has the backing of West Ham's hierarchy even though his character as a Premier League boss was questioned by his bosses. Sullivan added: "He is one of the nicest guys in football and the players need to remember that and start playing for him."

When Diamanti was asked how he would celebrate, he replied: "I’m from Tuscany, so I will drink some red wine." After the week he has had, Gianfranco Zola would surely say, ‘Salute’ to that.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

World Coming Down

"When West Ham lose, it feels like the world's coming down on top of me..."

Here is a little Mark Noble interview with John Cross from today's Mirror. I didn't really know what to do with it so I'm reproducing it as is...

West Ham midfielder Mark Noble is enjoying new found stability - both on and off the pitch.

Noble, 22, believes good things are around the corner for West Ham after the David Gold and David Sullivan takeover at Upton Park. The England under-21 star and his partner Carly are also expecting their second child, with Noble saying parenthood has helped his football career. Noble's baby daughter Honey is ten months old while partner Carly is five months pregnant, and he is trying to be more positive in his outlook as struggling West Ham face Birmingham tonight.

"I think it improves you as a person and it's nice to have a family," said Noble. "I'm very happy with my life and really looking forward to the future. On the pitch, it hasn't been the best of seasons for us. I can't lie and say it has when it hasn't. We've got to be realistic. But I think every fan wants stability and the new owners have given us what we needed. Now we can push on, look to the future and go forward as a club."

Noble has endured some ups and downs this season as West Ham's indifferent form has left them fighting relegation amid the uncertainty surrounding the club's future until Gold and Sullivan's takeover.

Noble said: "As much as people think footballers live a great life, they earn so much money, live in big houses and drive nice cars, at the end of the day, when I'm driving home and we haven't won, it's like the world's coming down on top of me. Sometimes, I've got to stop thinking like that. I've got a baby now, so I don't want to go home and be miserable with her. But I'm quite passionate, I want to win so much and in the long term I'm sure that's a good thing. When I'm not playing or we've lost, the missus stays away from me because we don't really talk that much! I've tried to stop that. I've tried to forget about everything that's happened on the pitch or leave it at the training ground."

That has been difficult this season, especially after Saturday's defeat at fellow strugglers Burnley which put the Hammers back in the drop zone. But Gold and Sullivan are desperate to turn things round, and Noble says the players are right behind manager Gianfranco Zola.

Noble firmly believes the new regime, new signings Benni McCarthy and Mido plus a squad including regular England internationals Rob Green, Matt Upson, Carlton Cole and Scott Parker can steer them from danger.

Noble added: "This league is so tight, I've never known anything like it. We're all behind the manager, Gianfranco Zola, the board have come in and they will hopefully bring stability to the club. You can see they want to improve it straight away, they've made a good signing in Benni McCarthy, and hopefully we can go forward.

"For stability, you need to be in charge of your club, of your team, for many years - you can see that with Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson - and hopefully that can be the way forward. The manager is a really positive person, he instills belief in you, he wants you to go out there, enjoy yourself and I think the players like playing under him. I've never heard a bad word said about him and for a manager that's very unusual. He's been there, seen it and been through it.

"He's come in, said from day one, that no matter what position we're in, he wants us to play football and that's what we're doing at the moment. We've got a good squad - the likes of Scott Parker, Carlton Cole, Matt Upson and Rob Green, the spine of the team, are all experienced pros. The new owners have also been very honest, direct and said what needed to be said about the state the club was in.

"When they arrived, they came in to see the players, introduced themselves to everyone, got to know the players personally rather than just seeing us on the telly and so on. That was a nice thing to do. Then Mr Gold walked into the dressing room before the game against Blackburn, shook our hands and wished us good luck. That's a nice touch, they're showing the support and getting right behind us. It's nice they're West Ham fans because West Ham fans are so passionate. With them being fans, they're going to do the best for the club. They're not just interested in profits, they want the club to do well."

The Matryoshka Principle

Gianfranco Zola was at loggerheads with his employers last night because of the Italian’s perception that his position has been undermined and managerial style publicly questioned. Yesterday co-owner David Sullivan, on the eve of tonight's crucial match, warned of a financial "Armageddon" at West Ham and put forward a plan to ask "everyone to voluntarily take a wage reduction" while he will seek other savings and redundancies. He added that Zola would be among those expected to accept the pay cut and said that anyone unhappy with the request could leave. "Gianfranco is highly paid and I think that all managers in the Premier League are over-paid," Sullivan said.

Despite claiming that he "speaks and communicates a lot" with Gold and Sullivan, the Italian clearly knew ­nothing of their plans, whether the club – currently third from bottom in the league – avoid relegation or not. The first he saw of Sullivan's proposals was in the newspapers, immediately before training. For Zola – preparing his under-performing team for the visit of Birmingham, who have lost only once in 18 matches – it was the timing rather than the substance of Sullivan's statement that rankled. "I think that article should have been done maybe at another time," he bristled. "Before a match like this it would have been better to say that at another time, and maybe to talk to us first before talking to a newspaper. That is my feeling."

Zola told the assembled media he had not spoken to the owners, nor had he been consulted about the issue. "Personally I can say I am not here for the money," he stated. "Last year when I signed a contract I didn't even know how much I was going to earn. I had a plan and a project and I liked what I was going to do. I didn't know what I was going to earn and then after a while the club called me in about a new contract. It's not about money. It is about working for something positive. I always enjoy working for this club. The money was something that came after."

The Italian also reacted with surprise when told Sullivan had compared him to Ossie Ardiles, the affable but unsuccessful Tottenham manager of the early 90s. ­Commenting on his manager's ­demeanour, Sullivan said: "The question is, 'Is he too nice?' Ossie Ardiles was the nicest guy you could meet but look what he did to Tottenham." Zola pointed to his success last season, when he guided West Ham to ninth in the league after replacing Alan ­Curbishley in September. "I don't understand this," he said. "I stick to my philosophy and this won't change it." This term has, in comparison, been a disaster with doubts over the club's finances and a spate of injuries contributing to the record of just four ­victories. Third from bottom, above Wolves only on goal difference, only Portsmouth have gathered fewer points.

"This year, obviously, so far the job has not come out the way it should, but the season is not finished," said Zola, who compared West Ham's problems to ­opening a Russian doll. "To be honest we have been dealing with so many problems it is like a Matryoshka, no? You open up a box and there's another box then another box and another box. For me it has been the same with problems; you sort one and then another one comes out."

Sullivan says it would be 'Armageddon' if West Ham were relegated. Zola, however, insisted: "I'm not thinking about relegation at all. I'm thinking about getting the points that we should have had on the table That is my only focus. That is why I am here. Since I have been here it has been a repetition of speculation and problems. To be honest I'm fed up with that. I just want to carry on with football. The players are committed to what we are doing. They believe in it and are determined. The defeat against Burnley was unexpected and a big blow. But the fighting spirit is there and we will never give up."

West Ham have taken just two points from a possible nine since Gold and ­Sullivan paid £44m for their stake, with the Icelandic bank Straumur retaining the other 50%. Zola, in his first ­managerial role, has had to adapt to Gold, and in ­particular Sullivan, taking a heavy ­interest in the day-to-day running of the club. "I am not getting in to a debate about I am like this and they are like that. I am what I am and I respect that they are different," he said. "There is no concern there and it's not my interest to judge them."

Yet Zola was clearly irritated by the potentially destabilising effect of the pay issue and wants to concentrate on getting West Ham out of relegation trouble. When asked if the owners speak to the press too much, Zola added: "It doesn't interest me. They can talk to the press as much as they want. When an article comes like that before a big match like tomorrow I'm not happy about that because I don't think it is any good for the whole team. I just read the article this morning and that's it. The match is all that matters to me and the players."

The wider picture, according to today's Times, is that Sullivan is believed to be preparing the ground for a potential change of manager, with Mark Hughes his favoured choice, should Zola not turn around their fortunes soon. While the Italian said he had no desire to walk away from the club, he hinted that he would not suffer excessive interference from Sullivan and David Gold, who bought 50% of the club last month. "I am too connected and tied up to the players," Zola said. "I have a relationship with them and we had a quick chat to remind them our job is to play football. I have a relationship with the supporters, who have been fantastic for me. I don’t like to leave situations unfinished, but I am a person with principles and I won’t allow anybody to walk over my principles or my person. I hope that gives you an idea."

The Telegraph insists David Sullivan cannot sack Zola as West Ham United's manager, even if he wanted to, until the end of the season. This is because of the "shareholders agreement' he struck with Straumur, the stricken Icelandic bank, as part of last month's takeover deal. The deal not to sack Zola was sealed, it's thought, with West Ham's former chairman Andrew Bernhardt. This was partly to maintain some stability at the club but, more importantly, to ensure that Straumur – which retains a 50 per cent stake - is not partly exposed to the liability of paying off Zola or his assistant Steve Clarke. Zola signed a new three-year deal at the end of last season and earns £1.9 million a year while Clarke's salary is £900,000.

If they wanted to sack Zola now they would have to gain the agreement of Straumur. Sullivan hinted at this in his first press conference, says Jason Burt. Having bought West Ham, he said that he and Gold had gained "operational and strategic control" of the club but added that there was a limit to the financial decisions they could make unilaterally. This included an option to buy the other half for at a fixed price for the next four months and then at another price after that.

Burt suggests Zola may quit in the summer in any case having, he hopes, guided West Ham to safety. If Zola walked out, or felt forced to quit having been undermined, it means he would not be entitled to any compensation. Sullivan has always insisted that he will give Zola time – and has pointed to his record of only getting rid of two managers during his years at Birmingham City – but it is understood that he has misgivings over the Italian and whether he has the stomach for a relegation battle.

The Telegraph reports that Sullivan, while he was in negotiations to buy West Ham, considered making a move for former Manchester City manager Mark Hughes, and offering him a heavily-incentivised contract until the end of the season, with a bonus paid if West Ham avoided relegation. Hughes's name has come up again in recent days but, as the same paper revealed last month, he is already in negotiations to be become Turkey's new coach and is not believed to be interested in taking over at Upton Park.

For his part, David Sullivan has sought to explain comments he made regarding Gianfranco Zola and his squad in the wake of criticism from the manager, insisting that he was simply trying to fire up the team ahead of the visit of his former club. "I can see Zola's counter argument that these issues are best not brought to light so close to a game, and yes he has a point," said Sullivan. "I am not upset for him expressing it, however if my comments galvanise the team and they produce a performance then it would have been worthwhile. I hope it bonds the team and the manager closer together, so they go out and say they are going to show everybody what they can do, what they are made of. People at West Ham have got to face reality. West Ham have won four of their last 24 games, so who can blame me for wanting to take a strong stance if that ends up motivating people?

"But, no I am not going to take offence at Zola taking issue. He is a lovely man, and an honourable man, and a lovely person, so he is quite entitled to his opinion, and in some ways I sympathise with his view. I partly agree with it, but it is very much a subjective view, and if it wins us the game, then I will be happy to have said it." With regards to the issue of requesting drastic wage reductions, he added: "You cannot impose a 25% cut in players' wages, you cannot cut their wages at all. They have contracts, so it cannot happen, you simply cannot enforce it however much you would like to. The truth is painful though. We have figures based on staying up and figures based on relegation and I don't want to go there regarding how relegation would hit this club. But I have become an optimist. I believe we will stay up."

Speaking on Sky Sports News this morning, Sullivan went on to dismiss one tabloid newspaper report that Gianfranco Zola could be sacked if West Ham fail to beat Birmingham at Upton Park tonight. "Gianfranco is entitled to his opinion and I respect that," Sullivan stated. "If we win then he will have made his point but if we lose I will have made mine." When asked how secure Zola's position is, Sullivan replied: "It's 100 percent secure." The former Birmingham co-owner does not believe sacking the manager would be in the club's long-term interests and will back him in the transfer market this summer. "In 17 years we sacked two managers at Birmingham," he added. "We're not sackers. We support managers and we will bring in players to improve the team in the summer. I think over the next 14 games we'll learn an awful lot about everyone at West Ham, the team and the manager. I'm confident over the next 14 games that the team will improve and that we'll claw our way up the table."

Sullivan refused to elaborate on comments that everyone would need to take a 25 per cent pay cut in the summer, stating only that the club's finances remain in dire straits. "The books are horrendous," he added. "There's 100-odd million of debt. This might be the last interview I do this season. We've made the public aware of the situation. We're not going to go over and over it again. It's an enormous challenge. We think we're up for it. It's something that we have to put all our energy into."

While new owners David Gold and David Sullivan are clearly intent on bringing a measure of financial sanity to West Ham, Oliver Holt in the Mirror is starting to wonder why they bought the club in the first place. Their coded suggestion last week that Kieron Dyer ought to think about jacking the game in because he's cost West Ham so much cash for so little reward was particularly amusing, he writes. In case they've forgotten, Dyer sustained a particularly nasty broken leg while he was playing for West Ham a couple of years ago. He has toiled long and hard to try to regain his fitness. He's a good professional who's desperate to play again. It's not as if he's been taking money for nothing. I'm sure plenty of owners would like to get rid of injured players. Thankfully, the game's better than that now.

In the same paper Darren Lewis states the two Davids went into the situation with their eyes wide open. They did their due diligence. They saw the contracts and they saw that, as a big club, West Ham paid big wages in some cases. They’ve been able to turf out some of the staff – good people such as Olivia Collins who worked in the press room on matchdays – without so much as a by-your-leave. But the players have far more power, he notes. And they should bring Gold and Sullivan down to earth by forcing them to realise that, at big clubs, you spend money.

Yes, there probably is excess in some areas and yes, like any business, there probably are places where they could shave off a few quid. But, speaking only this morning in a bid to justify trying to slash even Gianfranco Zola’s wages, Sullivan claimed all managers in the Premier League are overpaid. Meaning he would probably go into Chelsea and ask whether Carlo Ancelotti – boss of the League leaders – is actually worth the money Roman Abramovich is paying him. Or whether Arsene Wenger is really earning the money he is picking up at Arsenal.

Don’t get me wrong, better these two come in with a record we know all about rather than faceless, so-called businessmen doing what has been done to Portsmouth and Notts County, concludes Lewis. But it looks very much like we are now seeing the true colours of West Ham’s new wheeler-dealers. The players should stand up to them. And if, as Sullivan has threatened, they are asked to leave if they refuse to take a wage cut, then they’d probably be better off at clubs that really do value their worth.

Meanwhile, the club shop at West Ham United has a turnover in the region of £5million and breaks even. This may come as a surprise. It certainly did to the new owners, writes Martin Samuel in this morning's Mail. If a retail premises is not turning a profit this usually means there is a surplus of stock, unsold. In West Ham’s case there are approximately 26,000 kits from last season’s order of 85,000 piled up in a warehouse. When David Sullivan and David Gold took over, the requisition was already being submitted for next year’s kit. The order: 85,000. Now the full horror of the last decade of misrule at Upton Park is unfolding, the truth is revealed. It is not, as ever, a parable for all football. It does not epitomise or define the Premier League era. It is a simple tale of a group of people who did not have a clue.

If the club is on the verge of bankruptcy and the chief executive is earning £300,000 and driving an Aston Martin it says nothing about football and everything about him, and the nature of personal responsibility.

Gold and Sullivan estimate that Kieron Dyer may end up costing the club £30m for a handful of appearances, and basket case transfers of this enormity are understandably eye-catching. Yet the devil is in the details. Eggert Magnusson, the former chairman, paid his personal assistant almost double the going rate of most secretarial jobs advertised in the Crème de la Crème section of The Times. Compared to the amount dribbling down the drain courtesy of misplaced faith in Dyer’s fitness, it was chickenfeed, but expanded throughout a club, and woven into the fabric of the business, it explains why West Ham teeter on the precipice.

All departments are dysfunctional because of years of inadequate leadership. Any shortcomings on the field are devastatingly mirrored in the administration. Terence Brown, the former chairman, still commands a raft of complimentary tickets, for home and away games.

One consultant was due a payment of £10,000 for advising on how successfully the club interacted with its supporters via its website. There is, to date, no evidence of how this was achieved in any professionally recognised manner. If there were ideas, proposals, admonishments, they would appear to have been verbal. Maybe the analyst stuck his head round the door and gave somebody a thumbs-up.

With hindsight, says Samuel, the biggest misfortune that befell West Ham United was that the club was not relegated in the season of the Carlos Tevez scandal. It would have been impossible for Magnusson to behave with such scant regard for reality in the Championship and many of his profligate excesses would have been curtailed. Yet, he suggests, even had he been unable to make vanity purchases such as Freddie Ljungberg, there would have been a sobering reckoning one day. The Armageddon time that is predicted if the club is relegated this season would have happened some day. West Ham, as a business, or as a sporting institution, did not inhabit the real world.

Maybe they still don’t. Samuel argues that never has the phrase ‘too good to go down’ been more optimistically misused on a football team than on Gianfranco Zola’s this season. West Ham went down with 42 points in 2003, the biggest total of any relegated club since the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams in 1995 (next on the list of unfortunates are Sunderland and Bolton, who accrued 40 points in 1996-97 and 1997-98 respectively).

To put this into perspective, the same points total last season would have given West Ham a 13th-place finish, eight points clear of Newcastle United. This season, at the current aggregate of points per game, West Ham are on course to reach 33.25. The lowest points total recorded by a team stayingup in a 38-game Premier League season is 34 by West Bromwich Albion in 2004-05. The signs are not encouraging. Even a purely subjective analysis of the two eras would suggest trouble ahead.

The West Ham team that went down in 2003 was a different class from the one fighting relegation now, and included David James, Glen Johnson, Trevor Sinclair, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe, most of whom would walk into the current team (James and Rob Green might battle it out; the rest, no contest).

Yet the new owners are growing increasingly frustrated at being told that this will not be a relegation season. There is a point at which positive self-belief meets complacency and the pair have dined on expenses at West Ham for too long.

Perhaps the dose of reality Sullivan introduced by talking of 25 per cent wage cuts in the summer was ill-timed, but the problem is one of extremes; West Ham has shifted from a land of plenty to one of austerity with no middle ground. It is also a complication that to even half-question Zola’s ability to retrieve the situation feels a little like taking a pot-shot at Bambi, suggests Samuel. He was such a lovely footballer and is such a nice man. Everyone says it, even the new regime. There is a universal will for him to succeed. And yet does Zola know what is required to keep a team in this division? he asks.

Sullivan mentioned the dreaded name yesterday, comparing Zola to Ossie Ardiles, another of nature’s gentlemen and a wonderful player, who as a manager seemed as well equipped for a duel to the death in England’s top division as Bungle from Rainbow would be in a cage fighting arena. Zola introduced three new strikers in the transfer window to a squad that has kept two clean sheets in all competitions since August, when he sold central defender James Collins to Aston Villa. West Ham keep it tight away from home, only letting in two goals more than Manchester City, but the record at home is poor: 20 conceded in 11 League games, the worst ratio in the division.

On Sunday, Zola was at Chelsea to watch the match with Arsenal and was warmly greeted by many who saw him in the press room. He was smiling and charming, as always. Meanwhile, on a television in the background, Birmingham City were mounting the fight back against Wolverhampton Wanderers that stopped West Ham slipping from 18th to 19th place and enduring a thoroughly miserable weekend, considering the defeat at Burnley and the fact that Hull City had, against the odds, beaten Manchester City.

Yet West Ham play Birmingham tonight. So, if Zola was out watching football, why at Stamford Bridge and not St Andrew’s? No doubt there will have been West Ham scouts present in the Midlands, no doubt tapes will have been studied and preparations made this week, but if David Moyes, the Everton manager, whose team are now safe, bothered to make the trip to Chelsea in advance of their visit to Goodison Park, is Zola truly so insightful that he could learn nothing from seeing Birmingham, first-hand?

Or is he, like the rest of them, merely convinced that West Ham are too good to go down, which is why they will need 110,000 replica shirts next season. Hurry, while stocks last.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Armageddon Scenario

I address you today not as the owner of West Ham United, not as the chairman of your football club, but as a fellow Hammer. We are faced with the very gravest of challenges. The Bible calls relegation "Armageddon" - the end of all things. And yet, not for the first time in the history of the Premier League, a team has the technology to prevent its own extinction. All of you praying with us need to know that everything that can be done to prevent this disaster is being called into service. The supporters' thirst for excellence, trophies; every step up the ladder of the league; every adventurous reach into space; all of our combined modern technologies and imaginations; even the wars that we've fought have provided us the tools to wage this terrible battle. Through all of the chaos that is our history; through all of the wrongs and the discord; through all of the pain and suffering; through all of our times, there is one thing that has nourished our souls, and elevated our club above its origins, and that is our courage. The dreams of our supporters are focused on those eleven brave souls crossing the white line. And may we all, West Ham fans the world over, see these events through. God speed, and good luck to you...

Two fans travel to an away game. One has refreshments in a West Ham carrier bag, the other proudly wears a spanking new claret and blue tie. Conversation revolves around the team. Who will play? What formation? What about the trio of new strikers they will see for the first time at Burnley? Will they fit in? Relegation doesn’t bear thinking about but a few hours later, on the way home from a 2-1 defeat at Turf Moor, it seems a stark possibility. The Hammers have slipped into the bottom three. It would be ‘a disaster’, the pair agree as we whizz through the sky at 500mph, cruising at an altitude of 22,000 feet in a Learjet 45, stylishly upholstered in pale grey leather. They are David Sullivan and David Gold, reveals the Mail's Matt Barlow. They own West Ham (well, half of it), and are at pains to point out that the cost of this flight comes from their own bank account, as their travel expenses always do.

The two Davids are in a confused state. Giddy with excitement at the prospect of their new project, this has been tempered by the financial mess they have unearthed at Upton Park. Each day seems to bring a new discovery of players and executives on fat salaries and long contracts, totally out of step with the club's status, states Barlow.

  • Gianfranco Zola, in his first job as a manager, was employed on a three-year deal worth £1.9million a year. His assistant manager Steve Clarke, lured from Chelsea to offer experience, earns £1.2m a year, more than double that of his equivalent at Manchester United.
  • Kieron Dyer, bought for £7m from Newcastle and handed a four-year contract on £3.5m a year despite his awful injury record, will probably end up costing West Ham close to £30m. He has started only five Premier League games for the club and is currently recovering from a nagging hamstring injury.
  • Dean Ashton was handed a new five-year deal despite excessive injury problems. Ashton announced his retirement this season with West Ham obliged to give him a year’s pay as compensation.
  • Dyer’s agent has received £1m for his transfer in 2007 and, a year later, Valon Behrami’s agent was paid £1.5m for helping to bring the Swiss midfielder to the club from Lazio.

These are just a few examples of the recklessness which has driven the Hammers to the brink of catastrophe and the new owners predict it will be three years for the problems to bottom out. "By the fourth year, maybe we can start to look forward," said Sullivan. "The situation they’ve inherited from us at Birmingham is far better than the one we’ve inherited, in terms of the way the club is run, the wages they carry, contracts, infrastructure. The training ground at Birmingham is vastly superior. We spent millions on it. At West Ham, we have a lot of players on too much money and a lot of very injured players. It is a disaster if we go down but we’ll just have to find a solution. We’re hoping to stay up and deliver an improved team next season. Some players will have to come in, some will have to go."

Zola, Clarke and the players were summoned to a meeting with Sullivan and Gold soon after last month’s regime change. The squad were told in no uncertain terms that none of them would be allowed to leave in January and that they would be expected to fight to keep the club in the Premier League. They were also promised that at the end of the season, if any of them wanted out then they would be allowed to go. The new owners will not accommodate unhappy players.

Sullivan has dedicated his time to little other than West Ham in the past month and he rubs at tired eyes, writes Barlow. His partner, Eve, testifies to his 18-hour working days - he finally shuts down his computer at 2am - but there have been signs of progress on some key issues. Deals to sign three strikers - Benni McCarthy, Mido and Ilan - were rushed through before last week’s transfer deadline and when Sullivan met Alan Curbishley last week they had a promising discussion about a possible agreement on the former manager’s compensation payment for constructive dismissal, a case he won against the club in November.

There has also been progress on their proposed new training ground, with planning permission granted. Already taking shape are plans to lay three pitches at the new 29-acre site at Rush Green near Romford, amid concerns that the surface at the old training ground in Chadwell Heath may be contributing to injury problems. Gold is also keen to press on with talks about moving the Hammers to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford after the Games in 2012. "We need that stadium to be part of the programme," said Gold. "We’ll try to persuade the Government and those involved that we are the best way forward. As an athletics stadium, you’ll get 5,000 people there on three weekends a year. It doesn’t make any economic sense. To claim you’re leaving that as a legacy is like saying we’ll leave it to rot."

Sullivan backs him up, explaining how West Ham could embrace the community in such a stadium. The pair are contrasting personalities but they have worked together for more than 30 years and they operate in harmony. "We even finish each other’s sentences, like an old married couple," said Gold, older, calmer and more relaxed than the robust and bustling Sullivan. "We’re very different characters. Dave has qualities I don’t have and I have qualities Dave doesn’t - not many, but I do. It works well and I think the key is respect."

Sullivan added: "We’re pursuing a dream but we don’t want it to burst. So we’ll pursue the dream, mixed in with a little common sense. And in three or fours years’ time, let’s say we’ve sorted out the mess at West Ham, and Dave might say to me, 'Let’s smack some money in and give it a go this year', we might well do that. One year, we’ll chase it, knowing we’ll run up a £30m or £40m loss just to see if we can make it. We did that at Birmingham once when we signed Heskey and Gronkjaer, who was dreadfully disappointing, and three or four others." Inevitably, Gold finishes the point, stressing the 'we': "Did you hear what Dave said? WE will do that. We will not go and borrow it, knowing that if we fail, the football club will be landed with the debt. There’s a difference."

Just how demonstrably benevolent the two Davids can eventually afford to be will be entirely dependent on the avoidance of the "Armageddon scenario" that is relegation. As the full catastrophic truth about the club's financial nightmare slowly emerges, a SunSport investigation into the Hammers' 'debt hell' has uncovered the full extent of boardroom mismanagement at Upton Park. In its simplest form, the paper states, London's working-class club has been trying to live like Chelsea toffs and now can't pay the bill. While West Ham fans have been putting up with low-budget football, a whole cluster of agents, coaches and hangers-on have been cashing in.

The Hammers plight, struggling in the bottom three of the Premier League and battling to claw their way out of a cash crisis, should serve as a stark warning to other teams living beyond their means. Fellow strugglers Portsmouth could be wound up in the High Court tomorrow in an on-going battle with the taxman as the team nosedives towards relegation. Even the Premier League champions, Manchester United, are saddled with enormous debts as football's gravy train grinds to a halt. Documents purposely leaked to SunSport by concerned staff at Upton Park (read Sullivan, Gold and/or Brady) reveal that:

  • West Ham's vastly under-achieving squad cost a staggering £75million in transfer fees alone.
  • The club still owes almost £15m of that money to other teams and instalments are looming.
  • A lavish £6m bonus system means West Ham would be no better off financially if by some miracle they won the Premier League or if they finished eighth - because the extra cash would be gobbled up by the players and staff.
Worried Sullivan admitted: "Things have to change at West Ham. We want to spend the money on putting the best team possible on the pitch. It'll be Armageddon if we go down. It'll be worse than what's gone on at Newcastle. I can't believe the contracts I've inherited. Every position is overpaid, whether in administration or on the playing side. All are earning more than they would at other clubs. We have made cutbacks already but may have to make another 20 or 30 people redundant by the summer. We have already had people in senior positions offer to take a voluntary 25 per cent reduction to keep their jobs. It's been gratefully accepted."

Gianfranco Zola and his highly paid players will be among those asked to take a reduction in pay. Midfielder Scott Parker pockets £65,000 a week - the same fee as crocked star Kieron Dyer. Defender Matthew Upson picks up £60,000 a week and fringe defender Manuel Da Costa even gets £20,000. The wages are crippling the club. Gold and Sullivan must slash the £60million wage bill to stop the club going under - even if they avoid relegation. "Everyone will be asked to take a cut this summer," said Sullivan. "If someone is doing a good job but is overpaid you still want to keep them. But many people at the training ground should take a voluntary pay cut. There's an army of people supporting the first team. Everyone at the club will be asked to take a salary cut in the summer. I'm drawing nothing forever, neither is David Gold. We are paying the first 12 months of Karren Brady's salary as vice-chairman. And we are not claiming back expenses. Every penny we spend is down to us. The club is in a mess and we all have to pull together. If we go down I can't even consider the situation."

Around 15 club staff have volunteered to take a wage cut and other cost-cutting plans are on the way. A 'player liaison officer' - who earns £50,000 a year to drive stars around - will be hit. The officer is a close family friend of a former West Ham employee. A fitness coach - paid a whopping £200,000 a year - and one of the club's two doctors also face the axe. Controversial technical director Gianluca Nani is also high on the hit list. Sullivan said: "We already had to slash 10 or 15 jobs. The club is in a mess, everyone has to pull together."

As a warning sign of the reckless financial regime of Icelandic owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and his sidekick Eggert Magnusson, none flashes quite so red as Kieron Dyer's West Ham nightmare. According to figures published in today's Mail, it will cost the club close to a staggering £30million over the course of his four-year contract at Upton Park. Dyer has started only five Barclays Premier League games for the Hammers in two-and-a-half years and has yet to score a goal for the club.

West Ham’s medical team reportedly raised doubts about Dyer’s signing when he arrived from Newcastle in August 2007 but the transfer was rushed through before the deadline because the owners were keen to showcase top-class players. Dyer, who has managed just 558 minutes of League action for the club, signed a four-year deal reported to be worth £70,000 a week but broke his right leg soon after his debut and missed more than a year as he suffered complications in his recovery. His transfer fee was £7m - £1m more than the figure publicised at the time - and the agents’ fees on the deal cost the Hammers another £1m. Together with bonuses and National Insurance contributions, the club can expect to have paid out the thick end of £30m for him by the time his contract has expired at the end of next season.

Dyer has struggled through this campaign with hamstring problems and the 31-year-old has not played since limping off at Bolton in December. He is closing in on another first-team return but if his fitness fails and he breaks down again, West Ham could seek to negotiate a deal to pay up his contract and bring to a premature end his disastrous spell at the club. Aside from the Dyer bill, West Ham still have to cough up £2.5m to Lazio for Swiss winger Valon Behrami's transfer alone, a year and a half after his arrival. What is more it is understood the player may be sold in the summer because his family are finding it hard to settle in England. The Hammers are still to pay London rivals Chelsea £400,000 of the £1.2m 'transfer fee' that brought assistant manager Steve Clarke up the District Line from the King's Road to Green Street. Not to mention the reputed salary in excess of £1m a year enjoyed by the Scot and the near £2m paid to manager Gianfranco Zola in his first full-time management position.

West Ham slipped back into the bottom three following Saturday's demoralising 2-1 defeat at Burnley, a performance that left the club hierarchy furious at the players' attitude and defending in particular. "I still don't regret taking over," insisted Sullivan. "If we get relegated I would. We'd have to sell half the team. Normally you don't have the debt we've inherited or the wage bill we've inherited. I was always a very good judge. The season Birmingham got relegated I said after 10 games 'We're going down'. Maybe I've lost my judgment but I just don't see us getting relegated. Maybe it's the West Ham fan in me coming out and I've become an eternal optimist. I'm not acting like some administrator who just wants to save money. I want to improve the team. At Birmingham we bought a team which reflects the size of that club. But West Ham is a bigger club and we want to do it justice."

Indeed. Yet there's no denying it is getting serious now, writes Henry Winter in this morning's Telegraph. Blessed with a loyal support and guided by a long-established commitment to passing football, West Ham have always been an attractive point of the Premier League compass. But unless Gianfranco Zola’s players start fighting for their lives, following Scott Parker’s example and giving every drop of sweat for the claret-and-blue cause, West Ham will soon be setting their sat-navs for journeys through the Championship.

The descent into the dark recesses of the elite’s basement seems to have occurred almost by stealth. The nation’s radar has, admittedly, been busy blipping over more high-profile movement surrounding the England captaincy, the title race and the chase for fourth, notes Winter. Yet suddenly, as they prepare to take on Birmingham City at Upton Park on Wednesday, the spotlight burns on West Ham.

Their form has been poor, their cutting edge blunted by the absence of a goalscorer, until Carlton Cole’s welcome return. Their problems have been exacerbated by opponents rising from the depths. If poor old Pompey seem trapped in Davy Jones’s locker, Hull have certainly battled to the surface, gulping in the oxygen of 14th place as West Ham sunk to 18th.

Few people would swap many of Phil Brown’s players with Zola’s on grounds of technique (although Boaz Myhill might threaten Rob Green). What Hull possess is spirit, a dogged determination to scrap their way to points. Chelsea were held last week and Manchester City beaten on Saturday. West Ham must acquire such mental toughness before it’s too late.

Fortunately, states Winter, the Boleyn can call on Parker. Every time Parker steps on to the pitch, the West Ham faithful know that here is a man who will never surrender, who will never stop running. Opponents know they have been in a dogfight when vacating the midfield area patrolled by Parker. If anyone is to lead West Ham out of the heart of darkness, he thinks, it will be Parker.

Zola can create the plans for the great escape by getting the balance right in his front six. Parker and Valon Behrami have to start in midfield while Junior Stanislas, raw but cocky, brings some much-needed width. Either Mark Noble or Jack Collison completes the quartet.

Mido, lively at Burnley, is worth using in the hole behind Cole with Ilan deployed as an impact substitute (Benni McCarthy is gifted but too laid back). A 4-4-1-1 formation would give West Ham some steel in midfield and enough attacking options. With a squad as fit and deep as he has enjoyed all season, Zola must get his tactics right now.

Anybody who loves football will wish Zola well. He embodies all that is good about the game, making the ball dance as a player and now seeking to imbue his team with positive principles. But the table shows no mercy. The anticipated cut for survival is around 37 points. West Ham have 14 games to collect 16 points.

The majority will need to be reaped in the home fixtures with Wolves, Sunderland and Wigan. Otherwise, the task looks tough for Zola’s men unless they collectively rival Parker’s exertions. Hull’s Feb 20 visit is starting to look huge, Birmingham are flying and the other Upton Park guests include Bolton and Stoke, just the physical types to trouble Zola’s defence. Manchester City’s Champions League-chasers arrive on the final day. The away schedule is little more than an assault course. If West Ham take more than a couple of points at Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool the church bells of the East End of London will ring loud and proud. The last away game, Fulham, looks a must-win.

Zola’s post-match utterances are rarely imbued with great insight but Saturday’s verdict was stark, writes Winter. 'Time is running out,' said West Ham’s manager, 'and we need to start winning.' As perilous as things are for his team, the sands are inexorably trickling away for the affable Italian. West Ham's new owners still believe Mark Hughes could be the man to take over if Gianfranco Zola fails to persuade them he can move the club forward. An article in today's Independent states Upton Park's appreciation of Hughes pre-dates his departure from Manchester City. The prospect of him being an eventual successor to Zola was first touted in December, though there was no real expectation that he was about to be in the job market.

David Sullivan is publicly backing Zola, writes Ian Herbert, though the club's failure to make inroads against weaker sides in the past few weeks has given rise to a growing sense of concern about the club's chances of Premier League survival. "Of all the managers I've dealt with he is the nicest," said Sullivan. "The question is 'Is he too nice?' Ossie Ardiles was the nicest guy you could meet but look what he did to Tottenham. Time will tell. Zola will prove himself over the next few games." Hull City's 2-1 win over Roberto Mancini's Manchester City side, while West Ham lost at Burnley, has only heightened anxieties. Sullivan feels Hughes is his type of manager, though it remains to be seen whether he could afford to hire him; especially with the prospect of the Turkey national job looming on the horizon.

Draws against Blackburn and Portsmouth preceded Saturday's visit to Turf Moor, leaving Zola's side mired in deep trouble in the relegation zone. It hasn't stopped David Gold enthusiastically fanning the flames of controversy before Birmingham City’s visit to Upton Park tomorrow night. He expressed his desire to "whack" his former club, whom, he says, are not as big as some claim. Gold could be forgiven for nurturing some feelings for the club he helped save and turn into a respected Premier League force over a 17-year period. Not so. The West Ham United joint-chairman is still disappointed by the manner of his departure from the Birmingham board after he sold the club to Carson Yeung last summer. He claims that he was promised he would be retained as chairman, but the position never materialised. "I really want to whack Birmingham," Gold said. "I have a great fondness for them, but it was sad the way it ended. They reneged on the decision to keep me on the board. That will always rankle."

"I hope they win every single game this season except this one," added Sullivan. "We need the points rather badly. I hope they get thrashed. Five-nil. Good for the goal difference." The pair never won a place in the hearts of Birmingham supporters despite their success. They arrived with the club on an unstoppable slide into the third tier of English football and took it into the Barclays Premier League, developing a reputation as wealthy but prudent owners.

Sullivan said: "Two years ago all our fans were saying, 'Why don’t you do what Portsmouth are doing?' and I said: ‘Well, is it an achievement to lose £38m in a season and extend your credit to win the FA Cup on a fluke year when Barnsley knock out Chelsea and Liverpool?' Everyone thinks it’s bloody marvellous. I don’t think it is. But that’s not what people want to hear. Maybe now they look back and think it was right. They might not if they see one or two clubs, like Pompey or Crystal Palace, going out of business or getting relegated one or two divisions because they go into receivership rather than administration."

In typical forthright manner, Sullivan reckons any Birmingham fans who abuse him tomorrow are fools after declaring his regime the best in the club’s history. "I think the foolish fans will give us some stick," he said. "They are full of hot air, but deep down they know we did a good job. Birmingham has never had a better owner in the history of the club. I said I won’t be there forever and ultimately I will be back in London. We were always outsiders at Birmingham. But in three years' time the fans will look back and see what a wonderful job we did and what a great shape the club is in. We rebuilt the ground and made the club self-sufficient and self-funding - it is a viable business. It was dilapidated. You had to piss up against the walls and there was no hot water - that was the state of the toilet facilities on the Kop. We left a fantastic manager in Alex McLeish, who is on a relatively low wages relative to the job he does. We left a staff and infrastructure, with top people and wages the club could afford. We haven’t left a heap of rubbish. The change of ownership has worked both for us, the club, the supporters and the new owners. We could not be more pleased to see the club doing well and I mean that from the bottom of my heart."

But Yeung’s takeover sparked a war of words between the outgoing regime and their successors. The Hong Kong businessman was livid at being contracted to give ex-MD Brady a big pay-off - as well as inheriting a raft of bills. He even ordered a post-acquisition due diligence at St Andrews to probe the books. "The Chinese moaned because there were a couple of million of normal bills not paid," Sullivan admitted. "The reality is the club is in great shape and not a single player is on more than £25,000-a-week. All I want now is good relationships between both clubs and I have a present for Carson. I have a white and blue gold and diamond broach and cufflinks that I had made when I owned Birmingham and I am passing them on to him. They are beautiful items and very valuable. We want peace in our time."

For their part, Birmingham owner Carson Yeung's right-hand man, Peter Pannu, has insisted there will be no recriminations when they meet previous owners David Sullivan and David Gold at tomorrow's Barclays Premier League game. "The other party have taken over at West Ham and we wish them well. In fact, I did congratulate them myself," Pannu told the Birmingham Mail. "We are, after all, football people but work is work and we have to delineate on that very clearly."

There appeared to be bad blood between the current and former power mongers at St Andrews after Yeung called in the West Midlands Police economic crime team over alleged "financial irregularities" at the club, although any criminal investigation was ruled out. Sullivan also apologised over remarks he made about Yeung after a series of verbal exchanges between the Birmingham boards past and present. Acting chairman and finance chief Pannu is adamant relationships will be cordial on Wednesday evening. "I will shake hands in the boardroom. I have no problem with that and I have had a chance to have a conference with David Sullivan and David Gold. We had a very candid chat. David Sullivan appears to be a very straightforward man. He speaks his mind - just like me. I think people must understand we are all professionals so we know how to differentiate between right and wrong, work and personal. I respect David Sullivan, he has got his stance, we have got ours and we agree to disagree."

If any extra spice were needed, Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, and Karren Brady, the former managing director at St Andrew’s who is now vice-chairman of West Ham, failed to see eye to eye when she wrote about the team underachieving last season. She said McLeish was ­suffering in 'Scolari ­territory – our team is ­inferior to the sum of its talent'. McLeish, who kept a diplomatic silence at the time, admitted: "Karren probably thought her ­comments would serve a ­purpose. But what she said was against my principles of team spirit. I told her not to write about the team and concentrate on all the other little funny stories because it was running against my team spirit ethic. Deep down she might not have been happy at my ­response, but she certainly took it on the chin and apologised."

McLeish could later claim credit for promotion to the Barclays Premier League, an achievement of which Gold remains proud. He said that he put the club on a sound financial footing during his 16 years at the helm. "We did a damn good job," he said. "We left a legacy of good players, a well-balanced squad that won’t break the bank. No one is on £70,000 a week sitting on the bench or is injured when the club is on the brink of going bust." He has begun a similar task of trying to reduce West Ham’s £110 million debt by seeking investment — a process that will be conducted by Shore Capital, an investment banking group — and lowering the wage bill. Today, though, his thoughts are not so far ahead but with the reunion with his former club. "People talk about Birmingham as a huge football club," he said. "If that were true there would not be 20,000 fans at the game, but a full house. No disrespect to Birmingham, [but] West Ham is a bigger club with tradition."

Indeed, Gold speaks fondly (again) of playing for West Ham's juniors, of the days he "snuck in" to the old Chicken Run and how he could afford just a penny for a plate of liquor at locally-renowned Nathan's pie and eel shop, still serving the local favourites just around the corner from Upton Park. That love for West Ham comes from his upbringing in the East End, with the seeds sown for the millions he now has by helping his mother sell buttons from a stall outside the family home.

Gold appreciates the importance of three points on Wednesday night. The 2-1 defeat at Burnley on Saturday sent West Ham back to the relegation zone with only 14 games remaining. "Of course my allegiance is to West Ham – that is where my heart and soul is and I think of my mum looking down and going, 'Come on you Hammers'," he said. "It is a massive game and it should be very exciting. We need the points more than them – they are fine, looking comfortable and even looking for European action." And Gold believes that a successful fight against relegation could spell the beginning of something special. "This is a big club with real tradition with FA Cup victories and a history of great players like Bobby Moore."

West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola had expected to have to sell the likes of Robert Green, Matthew Upson and Carlton Cole. Instead, he was allowed to bring in Ilan, Benni McCarthy and Mido. Gold added: "We signed three players in the window but the most important thing was we didn't sell anybody. During our talks to take over West Ham, one of the conditions we asked for was that none of the players were sold while we were negotiating. Any three of five players came within a hair's width of leaving to bring some money into the club but we were able to prevent it. That was a vital piece of business, more important perhaps than bringing new players in and I think the fans appreciated what we did judging by the response we've had from them."

And Gold admitted that he had a tear in his eye when he finally took his seat in the West Ham directors' box for the previous home game against Blackburn. When the PA announcer heralded the arrival of Gold and Sullivan, the pair got a standing ovation. "The response was really nice," said Gold with a smile. "I already thought I had made the right decision [coming here] but that just endorsed it. Fans play a big part in your life and play a big part in the decisions you make. If you have their backing and they are onside you go that extra mile."

It is true that Gold and Sullivan’s reception in the East End has been very different. Gold was almost dragged into the crowd by fans who wanted to shake his hand as he walked around the pitch to his seat at Turf Moor. After the horrors of the Icelandic ownership, they will be heroes if they can stabilise West Ham in the top flight and chase away the threat of bankruptcy. "This is a club we wanted for 20 years and we are where we wanted to be," he said. “A 25 minute drive is so much easier than two-and-a-half hours up the motorway. We can do a better job as stewards of the club because we can go to more things.” With that David Gold concedes what 'a strange, surreal situation' tomorrow's game will be. "We are desperate for the points and it is more important to West Ham than Birmingham," he said. "West Ham have a habit of giving away leads in games so I won’t be celebrating if we score - I will be celebrating the win. I think we will stay up, which would relieve me. All I need now is for the team to start winning. Wednesday night will do for starters."

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Accentuate The Positives

Gianfranco Zola remained defiantly upbeat despite United's 2-1 defeat to Burnley in the crucial relegation clash at Turf Moor. The Hammers fell behind after a goal from David Nugent and looked down and out when Danny Fox curled in a free-kick to double the lead. Although a late rally saw us pull a goal back through debutant Ilan before fellow new boy Mido struck the post in the dying seconds.

Zola was not happy with the way his side were outplayed in the opening stages but thought their overall performance would not have been undeserving of a draw. "I think nobody would have said anything if we would have got a point today," the Italian declared. "I'm disappointed about the way we started, the first 20 minutes, other than that I was pleased and in the end, as I said, we could have got more that that. We should have been prepared better for them coming that way. The second goal for them was a cracker, you can't do anything about that. But even after that we played until the end; we scored one and should have scored more than that - and that is the story. We deserved more than that. It's an unexpected defeat and I don't like it."

The defeat leaves the Irons with just 21 points from 24 games this season and a point adrift of safety. With little more than a third of the season remaining, and other results going against him this weekend, Zola knows only too well that the time for excuses is fast running out. "This way it's going to be more difficult but we still have a lot of chances - starting on Wednesday [against Birmingham] when we have a game where we need to perform very well," he said. "I think our future is going to be decided at home because we have important matches, matches that we can win. But it will be important also picking up points away - and we are looking forward to that. There's a lot of points to play for but we can't use that as an excuse. We have to start to get points straight away because everybody's doing that so we can't afford to start games the way we started today. That is something we need to work on."

Zola also had words of encouragement for his three new signings, who between them scored one goal, hit the woodwork and saw another effort cleared off the line. "They showed us they have enough quality to help," said Zola. "Benni did okay, he's not at his best yet but he will be soon. Unfortunately he picked up an injury. I thought Mido, when he came on, was excellent - he looked a threat and he held the ball very well, I was pleased with him." Zola reserved special praise for deadline day signing Ilan, who made an immediate impact when he came off the bench to slot home the Hammers' only goal. "I think he's a good player and he came on and he looks alive," he said. "He's got pace and that quality is very important here. He'll be an important player for us."

In related news, West Ham new boy Mido has revealed he will become one of the lowest-paid players in Premier League history, but insists: "My £47,000 -a-week pay cut is fair." The 26-year-old Egyptian international has famously joined the Hammers for wages of just £1,000 a week and insists he turned down three far more lucrative offers and snubbed a whopping £400,000 signing-on fee at another club before making his loan move from Championship side Middlesbrough (via Zamalek) in the January transfer window.

In an exclusive interview with Sport of the World, the striker confessed: "I agreed I would play for a grand a week, which I know will make me one of the poorest-paid players in the League. But, to be honest, I didn't consider the money at all. Sometimes you have to look to the future and I believe I am investing in myself. It's true I am losing a lot because I am on loan from Middlesbrough and I should be on £48,000 a week. It's a massive drop and my mother was very angry with me for agreeing to it. But I've made mistakes in the past and I know it is the right decision for me now. I've earned a lot of money over the past few years and now I've got a point to prove to myself and the West Ham supporters."

Mido's honest admission is in stark contrast to the greed of many of today's overpaid, pampered soccer stars, states the News of the World. The former Tottenham striker has been at 10 clubs in the last 10 years - including Wigan Athletic, Roma and French giants Marseille - and accepts he needs to find a permanent home. His advisors have hammered out a deal where he will get extra payments depending on appearances, although Mido concedes "it's going to be the worst deal ever," if he doesn't perform. Sipping coffee in a favourite restaurant in Knightsbridge, West London, he added: "I have had a bad reputation, but now it's time for me to put things right. I'm here at West Ham and I want people to say Mido is the real deal - even if I don't play a single game. It was important for me to get it right. I needed to come back to the Premier League to a big club and to work very hard. I actually thought it was a fair deal because I've been playing in Egypt and no one has seen me."

Taking a swipe at the money-grabbing image some players have created for themselves he declared: "Some people think footballers are greedy and blow all their money. But some of us are normal people who are decent and who just want to do their best for themselves and their family. Another team from the Championship made me an offer, through my lawyer Liz Ellen, with a £400,000 signing on fee, but I am only looking at the football. Two other Premier League clubs and a foreign team also wanted to sign me on big money. But I chose West Ham it is the best option for me. West Ham are a big club with a great history and I know the passion and the ambition of the supporters. I knew a lot about the manager, Gianfranco Zola, of course. He's a legend and I'm very happy to be working with him now. Another Premier League club told me I would be their No.1 striker, but Zola didn't. He didn't even guarantee me a place in the team at all. But the reason I accepted his challenge was because when I looked him in the eye, I thought he was a very honest man. He told me the truth, said what he really thought. Other managers give you a lot of bullshit to get you in and when you are there it is a totally different story. But after what he told me, I don't think Zola really expected me to join the club."

Mido's wife Yousra and their three sons Ali, 5, Hussein, 2, and little 10-month-old Hashem are based back home in Egypt, in Cairo. He insists his family are backing his decision to get back in the top flight. "I hope the fans will give me a good reception and help me do well for the team," stated Mido. "My wife wants me to do well. I've got a five-month contract here and it's up to me. I've been training every day and the atmosphere has been great. All the players have made me very welcome. Carlton Cole is one of the best strikers in the country and I've played alongside Benni McCarthy before at Celta Vigo. But I'm different from both of them and it is good for the team to have several options. I want to prove a point to people and this is the most important five months of my career. If it works out then I would like to stay for the next three or four years and then I can sign a proper contract!"

Elsewhere, Sunday People claim Matthew Upson will be sold to the highest bidder in the summer as West Ham look to cash in. In May, the 30 year old defender will only have a year left on his contract, and new owners David Sullivan and David Gold would rather sell him then than risk losing him for nothing 12 months down the line. In the article, Sullivan is quoted as saying: "If we can get a substantial sum for him then we've got to take it. It's business sense. He wants to have one last crack at the big time - Champions League football - and you can't begrudge him that. He's in his prime as a centre-half, but he is probably in his last four or five years and it's not awful that he has to be sold."

Arsenal will be in the hunt in the summer, thinks the paper, and will likely be joined by Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham - whose £4m bid last summer was £10m shy of the Hammers' valuation. Upson is the first man England boss Fabio Capello turns to if John Terry or Rio Ferdinand are unavailable and Sullivan and Gold will be hoping he has a good World Cup to boost his potential transfer fee. "You have to bring in younger guys on lower wages, who you hope will be as good or better," said Sullivan. "What we have to do is hang on to the young players, hang on and wait for them to come through, and we'll have a fantastic team in five years." Upson cost West Ham £6million from Birmingham three years ago, having resurrected his career after six stalled years at Arsenal.

Finally, there is news of two players who got away during the last transfer window. In today's Mirror, Eidur Gudjohnsen says he is ready to show West Ham he made the right choice in joining ­Tottenham. The Icelander, 31, was all set for a move to Upton Park after passing a ­medical, but had a late change of heart when Harry ­Redknapp made his move. "I had two options financially and this was the choice I made," Gudjohnsen stated. "I want to show I made the right decision and help us move up the table. This is a very exciting squad. Harry is a big character and the turnaround since he ­arrived is fantastic. I’m very grateful I’m back in the Premier League. In France it was different not having fans at games and not having passion for football. It didn’t fit with me."

The People claim Benjani failed a medical or he would have been a Hammer. The Zimbabwe star, 31, was set to sign for West Ham but the deal was scrapped when X-rays revealed the extent of his knee problems. Then, after the Hammers switched their attention to Blackburn's Benni McCarthy, it seemed Benjani was set for a switch to Rovers. However, the state of the player's knees forced Blackburn to also drop out. Sunderland have agreed to keep Benjani's training to a minimum in the hope he can lift them out of their current slump in form.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Any Old Irons In the Fire

Gianfranco Zola faces a selection headache ahead of today's Barclays Premier League match with Burnley. The United manager has gone from having limited attacking options to a choice of six strikers following the club's transfer dealings in the January window. Newly acquired forwards Benni McCarthy, Mido and Ilan are all expected to feature at some point, alongside fit-again Carlton Cole. Now Zola has so many attacking options he warned: "Nobody will get anything here unless they deserve it. There are six or seven, but the best two will play, but it is very important players understand football is competitive and you have to produce. I hope they enjoy the challenge as much as I do."

The Hammers have suffered with massive problems up front this season, but Zola is hoping West Ham’s new heavyweight strike force can lead the club to safety after the boss beefed up his attack. Cole looks set to get his first start in more than two months alongside McCarthy at Turf Moor, while Mido will be named in the squad. Ironically the England striker’s last start came against the Clarets in the Hammers thrilling 5-3 victory at Upton Park on November 28 last year. Cole suffered a knee injury in that game, but returned to action last month and has made two substitute appearances. McCarthy has been branded fat and lazy recently while Mido has battled weight problems all his career. But Zola believes they have the ability to fire the Hammers up the table. "Mido doesn’t look fat or over-weight," said the Italian. "He’s not played many games so he’s not at his best, but he can only get to that point by playing games. What has impressed me in the first few days of training sessions is his touch under pressure. He’s not afraid of physical contact and he doesn’t lose the ball easily, and so that’s a very good thing for us."

Zola has clearly been impressed with what he has seen from the new boys in their first week of training. "Ilan has trained only twice but he looks a very good player," said Zola. "Mido and Benni – we know Benni he is a goalscorer and looking forward to seeing him scoring. Mido is a surprise. He is working very hard and wants to improve himself. He has started with a brilliant attitude. He knows his standing and everything he is going to achieve at this club he has. He has had problems off the pitch, but he is player who has great potential and he wants to prove himself and get better and better. If he does well he will be in the team."

Writing in her Saturday Sun football diary, Karren Brady describes her dealings with Mido on transfer deadline day. "I am with Mido talking about a loan move to West Ham from Middlesbrough by way of El Zamalek, Egypt," she writes. "I first met him in my previous job, when we were negotiating a transfer to Birmingham City. He accused me of being aggressive, and I of him being expensive. But he has now chosen to forgo £49,000 a week to sign for West Ham on loan for £1,000 a week. He said: 'Last time you were very aggressive, telling me I could take it or leave it so, in your column this time, you write nice things about me?' Mido is a real character and I'll certainly be cheering him on."

Meanwhile, Brian Laws insists he would not want the Egypt striker anywhere near his side as he fights to keep Burnley in the Premier League. Mido signed for West Ham on Monday and should make his debut against Laws's Burnley side this afternoon. It's the third time in 12 months the forward has been sent on loan from Middlesbrough, following spells at Wigan and Zamalek, and Laws thinks Mido lacks the hunger he needs to save the club from relegation. He said: "No disrespect, but is a Mido going to come here and work as hard as these players? That is the mentality we have. We may not have the class of the top teams, but if we haven't got that, we have got to work hard - harder than the opposition. There is a merry-go-round of transfers in these windows, but you see a lot of them where they have happily gone wherever but they don't have that commitment to be there. They are just being shoved around all over the place. I have got to have players here who are committed to the cause. They know exactly what is at stake and exactly what is needed. And I make sure they know about that before they come. If it frightens them off, good luck."

With West Ham currently 15th but only a point better off than Burnley, today's encounter is vital for both clubs in the fight for survival. "The Burnley game is massive, a game against a team in more or less in the same situation so it will be vital not to give them anything and psychologically it could prove a boost," said Zola. "If we want to produce a good result we need to perform. It is against a team who are in a similar position to us so it is vital not to give them anything. Psychologically it would be good to get a result against them. It is a massive match. I would take a 5-3 win again."

That was the result of the reverse fixture at Upton Park earlier in the season, which saw the Clarets go 5-0 down before rallying with three goals of their own. The Hammers have drawn their last three games and kept two clean sheets, and Laws is expecting a tighter match at Turf Moor. "I looked at the DVD of the last game and it was played very open, both clubs played very open football and hence the score 5-3," added Laws. "But things have changed around and over the last few games in particular, West Ham have tightened up a wee bit and not been as open as they have been. I don’t know how they are going to look at this game, but I think from the outside looking in, I’d say West Ham will be coming here not to get beat. But we know what’s at stake. If we beat West Ham, we are out of the bottom three for sure and that will give everybody a lift. Three points are precious in this division. Now the transfer window has shut, hopefully we can kick on now and start producing the football to get us the wins because we desperately need one."

Away from the field West Ham have announced plans to raise £20-40million from investors in a bid to solve the club's financial problems. The Hammers were bought by former Birmingham owners David Sullivan and David Gold last month with reported debts of around £100m. The duo have now approached Shore Capital and Corporate to conduct the fundraising, which is initially aimed at professional investors but may be opened up to fans at a later date. Vice-chairman Brady said: "Although this fundraising is initially aimed at professional investors, I would love to be able to bring in our loyal and fantastic fan base as investors further down the line so that they can share in the club's great future, on and off the pitch. This is an option which we have seriously under review."

In other related news, the debt-ridden club have been told their decision to withhold Calum Davenport's wages may be illegal. The Hammers have ceased paying the defender's £20,000-a-week at Upton Park as the star has been charged with assaulting his sister. Davenport has had to go to court to defend the allegations after he was stabbed in a violent family bust-up last August. West Ham have reportedly got tough with Davenport following the takeover last month. The player, 27, received a communication from the Hammers' HR department alleging that he may have been in breach of his contract and that the club have no intention of giving him his backdated pay unless he is found not guilty.

Now the defender, who has taken legal advice and brought in the PFA, has told his solicitor to fight his case. The PFA have written to West Ham contesting the decision to withhold Davenport's wages, and the Premier League have also sent a letter to the Hammers asking for an explanation. They are reportedly waiting for a reply from the Hammers' hierarchy but the PFA believe West Ham may have behaved illegally. West Ham's joint chairmen insist the club intend to stand by firm however, while the PFA believe West Ham's actions could set a worrying precedent for future players involved in scrapes with the law. If the Hammers are forced to back-down it would be a huge blow to their drastic cost-cutting programme, states the Mirror. They are already trying to persuade injury-jinxed midfielder Kieron Dyer, who earns £60,000-a-week, to take retirement.

Gold and Sullivan breezed into West Ham with a few lectures on how football clubs should and shouldn't be run, states John Cross in the Mirror. They blamed the previous regime for wasting money on big signings, crazy contracts and nearly making the club bankrupt. Gianfranco Zola was assured his job was safe because they stuck with managers at Birmingham. All very good and promising, thinks Cross. I'll even accept their bold predictions that West Ham can make it into the Champions League within seven years as a bit of early enthusiasm gone crazy. Then, two days later, Gold says they have tried to sign a big, big, big player on wages of £100,000-a-week. Er, thought the Icelanders got it wrong with contracts?

Then, this week, they sign Benni McCarthy, 32 - and trouble with a capital T at Blackburn - on a two-and-a-half year contract, he states. Two-and-a-half years! That's madness, according to Cross, as he'll be 34 by the time that ends, and for a striker that's knocking on a bit. West Ham did some mad last-minute dealing in the window and suddenly their patronising comments towards the Icelanders seem a little hypocritical, he argues. Before noting, at least now Karren Brady has got all the staff turning the lights off, turning down the heating and shutting doors then West Ham will be able to pay Benni's wages for a while.

In the same paper, Steve Stammers says in the end the two Daves were as good as their word. Only time will tell if the choices were the right ones for West Ham, but at least Sullivan and Gold have provided much-needed re-inforcements for their beleaguered manager, he writes. Benni McCarthy? An obvious and proven talent who has the incentive of proving he is worth a place in the South African World Cup squad this summer. That should ensure total commitment, thinks Stammers, before cautioning that players who miss training at one club because they have got the hump tend to make that a trend. If Zola has cause to leave him out, the reaction will be interesting.

As for Ilan, who knows? A Brazilian who has an Italian passport and played for St Etienne in France. Turf Moor on a Saturday in February will tell us a lot, states Stammers, as it will about Mido. West Ham fans and the Egyptian striker have history from his time at Tottenham. Suffice to say there was a mutual antipathy. The jury is still out on that one... it will be an interesting relationship to say the least.

But credit to Sullivan and Gold. They have acted where others before them have just talked. By all accounts, a substantial amount of financial excesses have been identified and eroded. About time. They promised players and they brought in players - three of them to bolster a front line that badly needed strengthening. So far, so good, writes Stammers, but it might just be worth someone who has the confidence - or bottle as they say in those parts - to mention it to the new owners that West Ham fans don't do gimmicks.

Ten minutes before last Saturday's dire 0-0 draw with Blackburn, a medley of songs associated with the East End were played over the PA system. They included Run Rabbit Run, Any Old Iron, Roll out the Barrel and Knees Up Mother Brown. Presumably, the idea was to assure the 30,000 West Ham supporters that the two Daves really do have their roots in the club's heartland. Bad idea. No-one has doubted their allegiance. And the club's fans do not need to be reminded of the songs that helped the morale of their grandparents during the Blitz to lift their own spirits and heighten the atmosphere.

Next, the stewards will be telling everyone they have got a kind face as they come in and the half-time entertainment will be My Old Man's A Dustman played on a Joanna on the halfway line. All unnecessary. What West Ham fans want is a team that plays in the way to which they have been accustomed over the years, a brand of football that can prompt a chorus of Bubbles.

In Zola they have a man who adheres to that principle, insists Stammers. What they want is quality players that are easy on the eye and give them belief that the club is owned by people who will be true to its heritage - not be encouraged to join in a pre-match singsong so cliched that it wouldn't even be tolerated on the Christmas Eve episode of EastEnders. What they want is good football played by a decent team in entertaining fashion. They are realistic enough to know West Ham won't win the league - they just want to be in a position to play Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal twice a season and to have the occasional run in a cup. That is not pessimism - it is realism. The recruitment of new players by Messrs Sullivan and Gold is a start, concludes Stammers. Hopefully they are up to scratch - and not just any old Iron.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Benni From The Flats

Perhaps Capetonians should be grateful that the petulant, pouty-mouthed striker, Benni McCarthy, became a footballer. Imagine if he had become a gangster in his old neighbourhood of Hanover Park. "Either you stay out of trouble or you join in,” he explains. “And I've got to say it was fun joining in. When you are a boy, fighting boys from other neighbourhoods ... running around with a gang, it was all like being in a movie." But gangsterism's loss was football's gain…

Benedict Saul Apellido - showman, chancer, rascal, charmer - was born on 12 November 1977, the middle son of Dudley and Dora McCarthy. His older brother Jerome was also a professional footballer who played for Kaizer Chiefs and Manning Rangers among others, while his younger brother Mark played football at Franklin Pierce University in the United States. Raised in the crime-riddled Hanover Park township in Cape Flats, South Africa, the stick-thin 'Benni' played sport while friends and neighbours drifted towards criminal gangs. His athleticism and ability drew him to football from an early age. "Life was good there but it could be tough, and there weren't too many opportunities," he says. "Friends who were talented footballers are now gangsters. One of my friends from school, a small guy who used to get bullied, he's now a main gangster. Me? I'm from a strict, hard-working family and was brought up to have self-discipline. I kept out of trouble and loved sport." His father ensured he remained dedicated to it. "I was always chicken when it came to getting hidings from my father," he admits. "Every time I was going in the wrong direction, he came down on me and made me think twice. I went to church and studied and played football so there was little time for doing bad things. I was actually a better cricketer than footballer and I was a wicked fly-half too. I wasn't made for rugby though... too skinny and a bit of a sissy."

Growing up in a region once termed apartheid's dumping ground, violence and danger reigned all around; never more so than on one fateful day when a drive-by shooting robbed him of a friend. "We were playing football on a little pitch between the houses," he recalls. "During a break, I went back inside. Suddenly, we heard a couple of gun shots but we didn't take any notice because you'd hear that all the time. It was no big deal. Then our little cousin came running in and said our friend, Reginald, had just been shot. We went out, and he was just lying there on the ground." The traumatised youngster couldn't go over for fear of what he'd see. "I know it would have played in my head every single day and never gone away. I think Reginald would have been a footballer and a half. He had everything. He was quick, very skilful and mentally he was very strong. He would have been the complete player, but he never even got to see 15."

McCarthy was luckier and blessed with the talent to escape that lifestyle. "I remember playing against Quinton [Fortune], when we were only eleven or 12, and there were gangsters on the touchline threatening to kill him if he played well against my team. Football took you away from that life." Fortune, born in the neighbouring township of Kewtown, secured moves to RCD Mallorca and Club Atlético de Madrid. It was an inspiration to McCarthy. "All of the subsequent South African footballers who have made it in Europe owe a big debt to Quinton," he admitted. "He carved out a path and I remember thinking 'If he can do it then I'm just going to have to try harder and make it too!'"

The young Benni started playing at a local side called Young Pirates which was managed by his uncles. He then joined the youth structures of a local amateur club called Crusaders. Football's gain meant that by 15 McCarthy was the outstanding player in the South African second division for a club called Seven Stars. He plundered 39 goals in 49 games, enough to attract the attention of some of Europe's biggest clubs. When they were lined up as fodder in a match for the national youth team McCarthy unexpectedly ran the game and was immediately selected. Soon he played at the 1997 African Youth Championship, an oasis for scouts, and was approached by, and signed for, Ajax despite interest from AC Milan, Inter and PSG. Because of him the Dutch club later bought a 51% share in Seven Stars and changed its name to Ajax Cape Town. "I grew up as a footballer and a person when I moved to Holland," he smiles.

Had he been wearing it at the time, Amsterdam would have blown McCarthy's D&G hat off. "As a 16-year-old boy you've had a few part-time girlfriends at school, nothing serious, and you know nothing about nothing. Then in my first free day in Amsterdam my teammates took me to the red light district. A sex lesson! They asked if I'd ever seen naked girls and I said 'sure ... on TV'. I was 16! They said that day I'd see lots of naked girls and they took me to the sex museum, chicks lapdancing - the stuff that they do!" The anecdote involves a banana. The expurgated version has Ajax's senior players telling the girls to give Benni 'a birthday treat'. "I said 'no, my birthday's in November'." Too late - four naked girls descended on him. "The players said 'welcome to Ajax, man, we take all the new players out and give them a good time'." A dirty laugh. "After that day I could find my own way back there!"

Surrounded by idols such as Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen, finding his way into Ajax's first team was not so straightforward. McCarthy eventually progressed to Ajax's first XI, playing 36 times and scoring 20 goals between 1997 and 1999. After two intermittently rewarding years, during which he criticised Ajax for not showing more faith in their youth players and the South African FA for jeopardising his club career by making him travel to international matches, he joined Celta Vigo in the summer of 1999.

The move to "one of the best leagues in the world" didn't work out. "It was like going from heaven to hell," he says of his time in Galicia, where he clashed with his manager over his frequent sorties to play for South Africa. "The whole pattern was killing my career. African football needs the same calendar as Europe otherwise its best players are going to suffer," he adds. By then he had scored South Africa's first goal at the 1998 World Cup (popping the ball through Denmark goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel’s legs in Toulouse), released a rap single and, at 22, got in a huff and announced his international retirement. South Africa's minister for sport tried to change his mind and eventually succeeded.

"There were really good people at the club, but they really didn't know how to treat people," he says. "There were a lot of things that if they did them the right way Celta would be just as big as Real Madrid or Barcelona or Celtic or Rangers - stuff like professionalism, how the club was managed. But they didn't want to learn. They didn't have the big-time mentality."

At Ajax McCarthy played with Patrick Kluivert, Ronald de Boer (a "classy guy") and Michael Reiziger before they went to Barcelona. "I had what they had. Then I came to Celta and my team was always in the top five, always making it to the Uefa Cup, but there was a different lifestyle at the two clubs - a difference in how professional Barcelona is, how professional Glasgow Rangers or Chelsea is, compared to there. The fans were not really behind us. They are good because there is not a lot of abuse in the street. But when it comes to the games they are very critical. When I was suspended I sat in the stand and I was amazed by the stuff I was hearing: 'You fucker! You wanker!' Oh my God - imagine what they'd be saying about me too if I was playing!"

Ajax players went out together for meals, drinks or strip shows. McCarthy enjoyed that and always suspected the social aspect of British football would suit him. Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Rangers all tried to sign him during this period. Dick Advocaat wanted him for Rangers in the Champions League only for Celta Vigo to play him in Intertoto Cup ties. "Then I was cup-tied so what was the point of Rangers signing a player for (pounds) 12m when he couldn't play in the Champions League?"

A fluent Spanish speaker, McCarthy stated the culture and the lifestyle at Celta was great, but "if you don't feel at home it doesn't matter how great the country is or how great the people are." At 25 he still had his explosive speed, imagination and aerial ability, but a cool relationship with Celta's new coach, Miguel Angel Lotina, saw him edged out of the side by the Brazilian-born naturalised Spaniard, Catanha, and the moody Russian, Alexander Mostovoi. Benni has views about that. "Catanha, Mostovoi - for me it was really a problem because I knew I was better than them. But the trainer didn't think so...".

After two disappointing seasons McCarthy was loaned to Porto in 2002, scoring 12 goals in 10 games. Finances meant the Portuguese club could not buy him immediately. He had to return to Celta for another year and only finally in the summer of 2003 was he able to join Porto, a club then beginning a rise that would culminate with them becoming European champions. The fee was £2.5m, paid for by the selling of Helder Postiga to Tottenham that summer. McCarthy may have missed Porto’s UEFA Cup win but it was still a great time to join the club. He hit 20 goals in 29 games on his way to the Portuguese golden boot in 2003-04, and ended the season with a UEFA Champions League winners’ medal (memorably grabbing two goals in the second round defeat of Manchester United).

Apart from his agent of more than ten years, Rob Moore, the key influence on McCarthy's career is Mourinho. The striker credits the Portuguese coach in every interview - even though they have fallen out a few times over disciplinary matters - and was present when Mourinho gave his first Porto team-talk. "Looking back to that moment, when I was only on loan at the club, it is easy to trace the route from mid-table in Portugal to the Champions League final," he said. "I remember clearly that Mourinho drew everyone around him and told them 'We are going to have to fight like dogs to even get into the UEFA Cup next season but we will get there if you do what I ask'."

He added: "By the end of that season, we missed qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the season and it became a disappointment only to be in the UEFA Cup! He sat us all down again and promised, that if everyone did as he asked again, Porto would win the championship and the UEFA Cup - and they did. None of us were surprised - we had learned that if you trust José Mourinho and do what he asks then what he promises comes true." Things looked like taking a turn for the worse when Mourinho left and, after an unsuccessful spell with Italian Luigi del Neri in charge, Porto turned to McCarthy’s old Celta coach Fernandez. McCarthy reportedly said he would rather quit than play for him again but moves to various clubs failed to materialise and he honoured his contract. He won a Portuguese title in 2006 and then came the move to Blackburn.

Infectiously cheerful, irrepressibly upbeat, Benni McCarthy still can't subdue the sense of regret lingering in the background; ever since he first started kicking a ball about “in the Bronx of Cape Town", this lively South African had longed to play his football in England. That dream had nearly come true on several occasions, only for something or someone to get in the way. Pick a top-flight club. The chances are that they have been linked with the striker at one time or other. Aston Villa, Everton, Middlesbrough, Tottenham, West Ham, Chelsea - most of the interest, what's more, was genuine and serious during the player's up-and-down spells at Celta Vigo and Porto. Yet something always cropped up. If he wasn't too valuable to the team, the fee was too low; if he found himself in the wilderness, unused and dejected, the club still hung on.

"Even though I did well," he says, "I still would have preferred to come here when I was 24 or 25, when I was really fresh, when I thought I was really good at what I was doing. I had to prove a point. Everybody knew I was linked to the Premiership so many times, so they wanted see what all the fuss was about. I felt like I had to prove myself to people all the time. It would have been better for me to come when nobody knew me. Then you can enjoy your football."

So it was in July 2006 McCarthy signed a four year contract with Blackburn Rovers for a £2.5m fee. After a disappointing performance in the side's 3–0 defeat to Portsmouth, McCarthy found the net on his debut at Ewood Park against Everton in late August. McCarthy further endeared himself to Rovers fans, scoring a goal on his European debut for the club in a 2–2 against Salzburg in the UEFA Cup, and scoring another in the return leg. He finished second top scorer in the Premiership in 2006–07 with 18 league goals (24 goals in total).

The following season got off to a bad start for McCarthy when he was stretchered off in the opening day win against Middlesbrough. Benni was out of action for a few weeks and found first team opportunities limited, largely because of the form of new striking arrival Roque Santa Cruz. Despite being limited to largely substitute appearances, McCarthy did find the net a total of eleven times in all competitions.

In the 2008-09 season McCarthy appeared to be out of favour with new manager Paul Ince, as the club's strike force was strengthened with the arrivals of Carlos Villanueva and Robbie Fowler to join the already established Roque Santa Cruz, Jason Roberts and Matt Derbyshire. However, he answered these critics by scoring his first goal of the campaign - a 94th minute equalizer in a Premier League match against Middlesbrough. In a traumatic end to the year McCarthy's father, Dudley, died after a long illness and model Amy Leigh Barnes, whom he once dated, was found violently stabbed to death in her home. That December Sam Allardyce replaced the deposed Ince and McCarthy- with questions over his fitness and motivation- set along an irrevocable path towards the Ewood exit door. In all competitions, for Blackburn Rovers, McCarthy scored a total of 52 goals in 140 matches.

Ever since McCarthy made his international debut in a 2-0 home defeat to Holland in 1997, South Africa has been a different side with him in it. Conversely, gloom has always followed South Africa's footballing exploits during those periods of exile. He first angered Bafana Bafana fans by going into international retirement in 2002 aged just 25. The reason? Traveling to international games was hampering his ability to play European football for Celta Vigo and, later, Porto. He was talked into returning, only to quit again after the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations when the president of the South African FA, Mubarak Mahomad, made an uncomplimentary comment about his performance.

The striker blamed the SAFA for demonising him over a pay dispute. He refused to play again until he was given an apology. That period of self-imposed exile lasted 20 months, until new coach Carlos Alberto Parreira flew to Great Britain to talk to McCarthy, who was now at Blackburn Rovers. But after Parreira quit to care for his sick wife, McCarthy fell out with replacement boss Joel Santana after he refused to play in two warm up matches. Despite pleas from South African President Jacob Zuma, Santana refused to pick him. But a run of eight defeats in nine games, which saw the team slump to 86th on the FIFA rankings, Santana was sacked. With goals being South Africa's biggest problem, it was no surprise that returning coach Parreira made persuading McCarthy to return, for a second time, his top priority.

Sure enough, McCarthy returned to the fray. The 32-year-old told local press: "I want to start afresh and help Bafana do well in the World Cup finals. It is every player's dream to play for his country... and I have matured. In the past I was a loose cannon and I apologize if I was wrong [but] I am still the best at what I do - and that is scoring goals," he added.

Fast forward a few months to a sodden Chadwell Heath where Benni McCarthy is busy giving goalkeeper Robert Green a thorough workout. The South African has been with his new club for less than a week but insists he is already feeling perfectly at home in the hustle and bustle of east London. "It is very exciting to be here," he says. "It is mind-blowing to be part of everything that is happening at West Ham, and how this part of London is evolving. It will all be happening in and around this club and the new owners have come in and put the club back on track to go places. I want to be on this train, I want to be here now and grow with this club. I have come in at the right time. Maybe for results so far, you would like to be somewhere different or where we deserve to be, but all that is going to change. There are just too many good things at this club. Relegation doesn't exist for me. We have got way more in our squad to be at the wrong end of the table."

While McCarthy is excited about the prospect of leading West Ham's charge up the Barclays Premier League table, the experienced forward is also looking forward to making his home in the nation's capital. "It will be a different experience. You can't compare Blackburn to London. It is a small town and the surroundings are really nice and cosy and comfortable, but London is the big city. It is one of the best cities in the world. It has got so many great things that you can do if you have family and that."

McCarthy’s marriage to Spaniard Maria in 2004 means he now has little difficulty in fulfilling the criteria for an EU work permit. Maria has also been described as a calming influence and one of the reasons why McCarthy has mellowed from his fiery younger days. Together they have a daughter. "You can do so many tours and see so many fascinating things around London and learn about all of the different cultures that live here. The football scene is fantastic because we have got rivals in Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. There will be a lot of derby games and that is the kind of games I want to play in. I look forward to playing for West Ham in big matches. Coming to London has been very appealing. There is a big South African community in London, loads of South African shops. There is nothing of that kind up north so I will be very settled." And with that a smile plays out across his lips. "This is a game," he chirps. "You're supposed to enjoy it. You can't just be serious all the time. At the start you played because you loved it, not because you were getting paid. I lost too many years when I lost enthusiasm. Now I'm trying to get that back."

Copyright 2007 ID Media Inc, All Right Reserved. Crafted by Nurudin Jauhari