Thursday, 5 May 2011

Avram's Shirt Of Fire

Or like Hercules by his garment poisoned;
By my own illusion consumed I'm wailing
On my own grim pyre in flames I'm melting...
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, or so Avram Grant must be feeling this morning. The Israeli's fate has already been sealed after dragging West Ham to brink of the abyss, and not even avoiding relegation will save the manager now, reports Mark Fleming in today's Independent. When the Israeli tossed his "lucky" claret and blue scarf to the crowd after West Ham United's 3-0 home defeat to Arsenal in January, it was seen as the last act of a man condemned to the sack. Grant's farewell gesture at the turn of the year came amid rampant speculation that he was about to be dismissed and replaced by Martin O'Neill. However, the former Aston Villa manager rebuffed the club's approaches, and Grant has remained in charge.

Four months on and West Ham are still bottom of the Premier League, relegation is looming, and Grant has survived, however unlikely that might have seemed in January. He remains the team's dignified, if unloved, leader. An internet poll on KUMB shows nine out of 10 supporters want Grant replaced. They will get their wish. Privately it is understood the Grant has accepted that he will be sacked in the summer, irrespective of whether West Ham stay in the Premier League or not. It will be exquisite release for a manager who has spent 66 of the football seasons' last 70 weeks in the relegation zone; forlornly prowling the touchline, silently tearing at himself over a source of misfortune from which he can see no escape. To behold Avram Grant these last few months has been to recall Nessus and his shirt of flame.

So, once again it is open season about who will succeed him. O'Neill has again been mentioned, as has his protégé Paul Lambert at Norwich City. Queen's Park Rangers' Neil Warnock's name cropped up yesterday. According to the Guardian, West Ham have drawn up a shortlist of seven names to replace Grant should they decide to dispense with the manager's services at the end of the season – joining those already mentioned are Malky Mackay, Chris Hughton, Slaven Bilic and Ian Holloway. Who could succeed the Israeli will depend, in part, on whether the club are in the Championship or Premier League in August. As West Ham are currently bottom and three points from 17th place with three games left the most likely scenario is that they will be relegated.

Neil Warnock, who has won the Championship with Queens Park Rangers pending the ongoing FA hearing into the signing of Alejandro Faurlín, has also taken Notts County and Sheffield United into the top division during his career. He was wanted by West Ham to replace Gianfranco Zola when the Italian was in charge last season. The then Crystal Palace manager is thought to have rejected those advances as he had agreed to join QPR. Karren Brady, the West Ham vice-chairman, has a good relationship with him after her husband, Paul Peschisolido, played for Warnock during his eight years as Sheffield United's manager.

Paul Lambert is another attractive candidate after taking Norwich City into the Premier League, his second consecutive promotion as their manager. He managed this with Norwich in a precarious financial position. Similarly, Malky Mackay, who played for West Ham in 2004-05, has also impressed this season for similar work in making Watford credible playoff contenders from December until early spring, when a minuscule budget that allowed him to spend only £500,000 on transfers finally caught up with the club.

Chris Hughton, a lifelong West Ham fan, has been in the directors' box for the last three games at the Boleyn Ground and is a candidate after guiding Newcastle United into the Premier League last season. His stock is high after being dismissed from the Tyneside club in December despite the team being 11th. He is already known to be keen on the job regardless of which league the club finds itself in next term. Crucially, he is also available to start straight away. Another former Hammer is Slaven Bilic. He has been offered the position previously but failed to become the manager after he asked for a sizable transfer kitty that was beyond the club's means. The Croatia coach was a United defender in 1996-97 and is a fan favourite. His lack of experience of club management in England may count against him.

Ian Holloway is arguably the most intriguing option. His success at winning Blackpool promotion via last season's playoffs, and the club's attractive style this season, both achieved on a limited budget, have won him admirers within the West Ham hierarchy. He moved to quell speculation today by vowing never to leave relegation-threatened Blackpool for another club. Finally, Martin O'Neill may appear the least likely candidate due to his reported refusal to take over from Grant in January had the latter been sacked. But if O'Neill were given assurances regarding team matters and budget, he could possibly be tempted back into management. Interestingly, O''Neill topped that internet poll as the fans' choice to be Grant's replacement; although his part in the January shambles has alienated a section of Hammers support. In short, the Ulsterman would win in a FPTP system but probably not under AV. But I digress.

When appointed last summer Avram Grant was given the remit of maintaining the club's Premier League status during his first term in charge while David Gold and David Sullivan, the co-owners, focused on reducing the £110m debt. That figure is now down to around £80m but during a troubled season West Ham have rarely been out of the relegation zone. Falling through the trap door would cause a "£40m hole" in the club's finances that the owners, who between them own 62 per cent of West Ham, would have to find to keep the club afloat. It is understood that Gold and Sullivan never envisaged such a struggle, with the owners hoping West Ham would be 15th or 16th for the majority of the campaign and that Premier League status would be secured in March.

Sullivan spoke last week of the need to recruit a manager capable of lifting the club back into the Premier League on reduced finances if the worst happens. The goal then would be to follow the Newcastle blueprint, of returning to the top flight at the first attempt but also reducing their £50m-a-year wage bill. The stakes, however, are mind-boggling as West Ham are committed to spending £95m converting the Olympic Stadium in Stratford to a football ground before they can move in two years after the 2012 Games. They are to borrow £40m from Newham Council and £35m from the Olympic Park Legacy Company, and have to find the remaining £20m from somewhere else. Relegation has allegedly been factored into the costing, but not prolonged absence from the Premier League.

It all adds up to the perception that Grant, who took Portsmouth down a year ago, is a doomed man, even though West Ham still have a fighting chance of avoiding the drop into the Championship. The Israeli has said that seven points may be enough to avoid the drop but West Ham may need to defeat all of Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland to have any chance of survival. Even then he may not keep the job, as Gold and Sullivan may still decide he has not comprehensively fulfilled his remit.

In the face of oblivion Grant has remained optimistic throughout, to the point where his Monday postings on the club website, in which he desperately cites the reasons to be positive, have become a parody of themselves. "I was happy with the response of the players. The players looked like they wanted to succeed," he stated following 3-0 defeat at Liverpool in November. "We were in it at the beginning then gave away sloppy goals. At 3-0 we tried to do something, but they then made it 4-0 and it wasn't easy," he observed after the 5-0 debacle against Newcastle in January. After the 3-0 reverse at Bolton last month, Grant said: "We started OK and then they scored. This should give us energy and make us stronger for our next game."

Two months ago, West Ham were out of the bottom three, playing their best football of the season with back-to-back league wins over Liverpool (3-1) and Stoke City (3-0). Yet having hauled themselves out of the mire, they have now sunk deep back into it, earning just one point from six games since. The news yesterday that their inspiration from midfield, Scott Parker, is still struggling with his Achilles injury and may miss Saturday's hugely important home game with Blackburn Rovers only adds to the sense of impending doom. His dynamic displays are the main reason West Ham are not relegated already.

Sunday's 2-1 defeat at Manchester City, the Hammers' fifth loss in a row, was depressingly predictable, and while it will not ultimately decide whether they stay up or not, it demonstrated the depths to which this great club have sunk. Not the football but the non-appearance of the board. The absence of co-owner David Gold, who is undergoing treatment for cholangitis and septicaemia, is understandable. But the failure of his fellow co-owner David Sullivan and the club's vice-chairman Karren Brady to travel to Eastlands for the game, leaving instead a pocket of empty seats in the City directors' box, sent out a message of surrender at a time when strong leadership was required.

Sullivan's reasoning that he could not influence the result of the game and could watch it live on TV instead has infuriated supporters, particularly the 1,100 who did make the trip up to Manchester to support their team. The "no-show" at City followed Sullivan's comments last week that West Ham have only a 25 per cent chance of staying up. "There is still a 25 to 30 per cent chance we won't be [relegated]. We have to be realistic. The bookmakers put our chances at 28 per cent and you have to accept that," Sullivan said before the City defeat. He also questioned whether certain players who are out of contract this summer have the stomach for the fight.

"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," Sullivan said. Those players include England defender Matthew Upson, Danny Gabbidon, Jonathan Spector and Kieron Dyer, while Robbie Keane, Wayne Bridge and Victor Obinna are on loan. Sullivan has so far been silent on the subject of Grant's future, his fingers having been burnt by the fiasco of January, when boardroom leaks about O'Neill's possible appointment ensured it never happened. West Ham are aware they do not want to scare off any potential candidates, although it may be too late for that. It almost certainly is too late for Avram; the horse hair at the pommel is just about to break.


Robyn said...

Brilliant again- I always come away from your blog better informed but also feeling a little bit thick lol!

Anonymous said...

Your not the only one :)


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