Wednesday, 10 February 2010

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.

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