Friday, 29 April 2011

This Is Money Time

Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland are all that now stand between West Ham United and oblivion, writes Jamie Jackson in today's Guardian. Six years after Alan Pardew guided the East End club back into the Premier League, Avram Grant has four games to prise his side off the bottom of the table, starting with Sunday's Eastlands meeting with Roberto Mancini's fourth-placed team.

Plunge into the Championship and a financial shadow will darken over the club. West Ham have around £80m of debt and will become tenants of the Olympic Stadium at Stratford for the start of the 2014-15 season, legal challenges allowing. Balancing the books will be far trickier in the proposed 60,000-seat stadium without the £45m a-year TV money from the Premier League, despite what the club and the Olympic Park Legacy Company may claim. Without Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal as visitors, thinks Jackson, it seems unlikely that in the Championship they could lift this season's average attendance of 33,000 to 60,000. Asked how nervous he is regarding the challenge of staying up Grant says: "I like this stage of the season because you see the real character, the real players. It's money time now. We need to be at our best. This is the money time."

David Sullivan is clear about the financial consequences if his club sink. He says: "There would be a £40m hole in our cash flow which would have to be met by myself and [co-owner] David Gold." That said, Sullivan is far from convinced West Ham's 'spoilt' players will put their bodies on the line to keep club up. In a frank and heartfelt interview with The Telegraph, the club’s co-owner and chairman also rated the team’s chances of survival at just “25 per cent” and said he personally will have “let down” the supporters if the demotion happens. Clearly frustrated, he questioned whether some modern-day footballers cared enough because they are “spoilt” by the huge amounts of money they earn and this can affect their performances.

West Ham are bottom of the Premier League with just four matches to go, starting with Sunday’s trip to Manchester City, and Sullivan said that this season’s struggles have shocked him. “We didn’t come here to be relegated, we didn’t think at the start of the season that we would be relegated and we have to put it right next season,” he said. “If we are in the Premier League we have to make sure we are not fighting relegation, if we are in the Championship we have to make sure we are in the top two this time next year.”

Sullivan has thought about addressing the squad for the season’s run-in, to ram home the importance of not getting relegated, but admitted: “I’ve been thinking about it but I think the players might think it’s a joke. I could go in there and give them a Churchill speech but whether it’s going to do any good, I don’t know. I think some players are spoilt, I don’t say just with our players, I’m saying with all clubs. How do you motivate millionaires? It's a problem all managers have.

"Alex Ferguson has got that fear factor and I do think that a manager needs that fear factor. You look at Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho. The players are a little bit frightened of them. But I’m sure a few of the players are already looking at where they will be next season — their contracts are up, they’ll be off. It means the manager [Avram Grant] might have a hard decision to make if we go into the last game of the season needing a win to stay up — do you trust the fate of the club to them or do you make the decision that you will not play those players? It’s a very difficult decision. Do you go for players who are committed to the club? If you look at that last game and someone is on a Bosman [free transfer], will that player risk injury? Some will, some won’t. It depends on the mentality of the player.”

There is a clear frustration in Sullivan’s voice – and a personal toll also. The 62 year-old said he wakes up “10 times a night” worrying about the fate of the club he acquired in January 2010, but insisted he would rebuild the squad over the summer — with an exodus of players expected. “I’m battling on,” he said. “Obviously we are facing the reality that 70-75 per cent we are likely to be in the Championship next year. But there is still a 25-30 per cent chance we won’t be. We have to be realistic. The bookmakers put our chances at 28 per cent and you have to accept that. I feel for the supporters. We have fantastic supporters and I feel myself and David [Gold, the co-chairman ] have let them down. We have failed to deliver and the bottom line in football is that it’s a delivery business. Forget all the excuses – the bad luck, the good luck, the injuries – because over a season it sort of averages out. OK, it probably hasn’t quite averaged out for us this year but you can’t blame that.

“I can’t sleep at night. It hasn’t affected my health but it has affected my mind. I wake up 10 times a night thinking about the state of the club. I ask myself, 'What can we do?’ I know there is only so much you can do. But I can’t switch off at all. I’m sure most of our supporters can’t either. We are supporters also. Supporters who have made a huge investment, but that is secondary, and we, as supporters, are gutted at the way things have developed. We can scramble and stay up and salvage something but we can’t delude ourselves it’s been a good season. But at least we are in a better position to re-form for next season.

“There is no point denying it, but we are very depressed and we are very depressed for the club’s supporters. I feel I have let them down. I’m not a loser in life and to get relegated is a serious loss. It’s not the end of the game but it’s like a boxing match and you take a bashing for three rounds. It’s a 12-round fight and there are nine rounds to go, but you are in serious trouble.”

Sullivan insisted that he did not regret acquiring West Ham and inheriting the perilous financial state of the club he now runs. “We haven’t gone to West Ham to make money,” he insisted. “We would have bought Sheffield Wednesday for £3 million or £4 million if we wanted to make an investment. But we are not Sheffield Wednesday supporters; we are in this for the long haul. Whatever it takes, we will turn this around.”

Sullivan’s and Gold’s experience at their former club, Birmingham City, will help. On the two occasions they were relegated from the Premier League, they immediately returned to the top flight each time. “I hope that will count for something,” he said. “If it comes to it, we know what needs to be done and we can put together a side to get us back up straight away. I don’t accept it has come to that yet and there is a long way to go still. But there is certainly no point being in denial and declaring 'we won’t be relegated’.

“Against that the club is in a worse financial state. We will have to shed a few players and a few players will not want to stay. We will have to bring in new players to bring us back up. I think a lot of the players at West Ham will not want to play in that division [the Championship]. I don’t think it’s going to be easy and you need players who are proven in that division plus some young players who are fearless and who have the energy to play 46 games a season. We have some players who find 38 games very difficult.

“I’m anticipating bringing in players who are £2 million, £3 million. I can’t name names but you are looking at players who might be, for example, the leading goalscorers in the Championship. If you buy two guys who can get you 25 goals each, well that’s 50 goals and gives you the basis for going straight back up.” Grant’s future will also be decided. “We sit down at the end of every season, and whatever club we have been in, with the manager and hear what his thoughts are, what our thoughts are and we decide on the future at that point in time,” Sullivan said.

So if West Ham are relegated it will be the beginning of the end for an underachieving squad. Only Scott Parker, West Ham's sole star turn this campaign and duly recognised as the football writers' player of the year, is exempted from criticism. Carlton Cole admits their survival hopes depend on the fitness of the inspirational midfielder. Parker looks likely to miss Sunday's trip to Manchester City and is battling to be fit for the final three games of the season. "Scotty is one of those players that is a leading player on the pitch, he leads by example, he will say how he feels," Cole told his club's official website. "Scotty won't shy away from anything, from a challenge, those are the sort of characters you need in your team. Especially when we are fighting relegation as well, Scotty as a player and a person is someone who will always stand up and be counted. Any accolade he gets, any pat on the backs, Scotty deserves. That is how I look at it. I hold him highly up there as one of the best players in the league at the moment. For the last three years, as soon as he got over the niggly injuries he had when he was first here, once he started getting momentum, he has not stopped. He is like a juggernaut."

If the worst happens Parker would have to be sold to raise cash, though relegation would slice his value from around £15m to £10m. The midfielder would certainly be followed by many more, among them Cole, Robert Green, Mark Noble, Demba Ba, plus Thomas Hitzlsperger, the out-of-contract Matthew Upson and the loan signings Victor Obinna, Wayne Bridge and Robbie Keane. These are all seasoned enough performers to suggest West Ham should not be two points from safety, and Julian Dicks, the former West Ham left-back, is clear where the blame lies. "It is down to the players," he says. "I have seen an improvements for certain games but it's not been continuous."

This has been the tale since Gold and Sullivan bought the club last January. After Gianfranco Zola managed to avoid the drop but was sacked last summer, Grant took over, only to suffer a whispering campaign against him. "I blame the manager because I've always said the most important person at a club is him," Tony Cottee, the former West Ham striker, says. "I was extremely disappointed with Avram Grant's appointment."

On the opening day West Ham left Villa Park having lost 3-0, and a turbulent eight months began. Standing 18th then, Grant and his troops had to wait nearly five more months for the table to show they were above the relegation zone. Ahead of the visit of Wigan Athletic on 27 November West Ham were bottom, so the club designated the match a make-or-break "save our season" encounter. A 3-1 win followed but they remained 20th. When a Freddie Sears strike confirmed a 2-0 win at Wolves on New Year's day, Grant's mantra that fortunes would improve had a glimmer of credence.

Yet matters on and off the pitch were about to worsen for him. On 8 January Karren Brady, the vice-chairman, used her Saturday newspaper column to reveal that the deal to sign Steve Sidwell from Aston Villa was vetoed by her, not the manager, who then had to deal with awkward questions regarding this intervention. A week later West Ham were bottom, following a soul-destroying 5-0 reverse at Newcastle United, and Arsenal were due in east London.

That morning, reports claimed that Grant would be sacked whatever the result, with Martin O'Neill lined up to replace him. The owners were forced into denials and the sense of turbulence surrounding the club was heightened by the rumours. Arsenal defeated West Ham 3-0 but somehow Grant clung on. Cottee again: "The owners deserve credit for rescuing West Ham when they did as the club would have gone bankrupt. But since then they've made mistakes including the handling of the Martin O'Neill situation. If they'd sacked Avram Grant first they'd have got Martin."

Since that farrago, West Ham have escaped the dreaded drop zone for only a fortnight in March. Now, four defeats from their past four outings – West Ham's poorest sequence since the campaign's opening – have them once more in trouble. "The ramifications of relegation don't bear thinking about," Cottee says. "They're £80m in debt [and] they pay a fortune to the players in wages. The top ones would leave, the younger players would be vulnerable to the bigger clubs: exactly what happened in 2003 when the club was relegated. And, they move to the new stadium in 2014."

If West Ham overcome the legal challenges by Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient they will have to invest at least £95m in Stratford. This includes a £40m loan from Newham council, extending the debt to £120m. The OPLC says it has assurances that relegation would not affect the club's ability to take over the stadium, and Ian Tomkins, the club's Olympic Stadium director, says: "The business plan has been modelled on different scenarios. The stadium is not only about West Ham United – concerts, potential naming rights, there's a whole range of [financial] opportunities. It is about taking West Ham United to the next level, breaking out of what can become an almost cyclical pattern of staying up and then the threat of relegation."

That said, Owen Gibson insists serious questions remain over West Ham's ability to repay a £40m loan on Championship forecasts and their ability to fill the stadium. Writing in the Guardian, he notes the Hammers' partner, Newham council, has controversially loaned the sum to the joint venture that will operate the stadium and charge the club rent. West Ham have said only that they will repay the loan as quickly as possible but have not said over what time frame.

In addition, each of the partners (including Live Nation, Essex County Cricket Club and UK Athletics) has been guaranteed a specific number of days under a calendar drawn up as part of the submission to the Olympic Park Legacy Company. UK Athletics has been guaranteed at least 20 days but has already admitted that there are not any events, apart from the world athletics championships, that will attract more than a few thousand spectators.

The OPLC and West Ham say negotiations over the final lease are continuing as planned but lawyers say they will not be able to sign it until the judicial review challenges issued by Spurs and Orient have been heard. Barry Hearn, the Orient owner, believes that could take up to 18 months. Originally, the OPLC and West Ham had hoped to have the lease signed by the end of the financial year and are already a month past that deadline. Depending on how long the legal battle drags on, plans to begin the £95m conversion project straight after the Games, in time for the 2014-15 season, could be at risk. That would have implications for the OPLC's wider regeneration master plan.

West Ham are in effect underwriting the non-profit making elements of the plan – UK Athletics, community use etc. The club insists that even on Championship forecasts it can easily meet the terms of the loan, which is underwritten by both owners, while continuing to pay down debt and compete for players. But there is no more detail beyond that in the public domain, beyond the vague promises of David Gold and David Sullivan.

Lastly, whether the club are in the Premier League or not, there remains a question mark over whether West Ham will be able to fill the stadium once any initial burst of enthusiasm has passed. They claim that the improved transport links and the allure of the Olympic Park will grow their fan base. They also claim that retractable seats will bring fans closer to the action, but some stadium designers question how that can be done. And given that they plan to give away 6,000 tickets for each match to local schoolchildren and have vowed that families will gain entry for the same price as a single existing ticket at Upton Park, they may struggle to keep those promises while bringing in enough revenue to compete on and off the pitch.

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