Monday, 2 May 2011

Blowin' In The Wind

How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
Manchester City's supporters celebrated with "the Poznan" and, for very different reasons, West Ham's followers must have been tempted to turn their backs to the pitch, too. This was their fifth successive defeat and, slowly but surely, the chilly fingers of relegation are closing around their neck. Unlike the defiant fans, West Ham's board of directors were nowhere to be seen as their team slumped further towards the Championship. Joint chairman David Sullivan had questioned the commitment of the players nearing the end of their contracts last week but he was conspicuous by his absence at Eastlands - along with David Gold, vice chairman Karren Brady and honorary vice president Terry Brown.

West Ham refused to comment on the amazing no-show last night but Manchester City sources confirmed they were expecting the Hammers to be represented in the boardroom. The indications were that Brown and his wife, along with Gold, were due to make the journey up to the North West. The snub is sure to raise eyebrows among the squad, who came under fire from Sullivan due to their recent performances. Had they turned up they would have seen the Hammers remain ever more rooted to the bottom of the Premier League.

Reality will dawn for both these clubs this morning and how different that will feel. For City there is now clear, sky-blue water between themselves and Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur for that fourth-place and, with it, the end of the rainbow: the Champions League. The gap is now a daunting seven points. For West Ham there are far darker thoughts. Their world will feel more monochrome than ever as they stare at the rising likelihood of relegation and the trauma that will cause.

It was, as ever, a self-inflicted wound. On 80 minutes, manager Avram Grant tossed his notebook towards the away team’s bench only for the wind to catch it, blow it back past him and scatter the pages onto the pitch. The sight of the pages, blowing in the wind as referee Howard Webb tried to retrieve them, would have been comic had it not also been a tragic metaphor for a man whose plans, if there ever were some, are in tatters. It summed up how West Ham tossed away this match, how disorganised they appeared at the start. Like those pages skittering around the pitch , they were all over the place.

After back-to-back matches against Chelsea and City, the Hammers now have a more favourable looking run-in. In public, at least, Grant will not give up the fight. The Hammers have some big games coming up and in theory their destiny remains in their own hands. On this showing, though, that represents their biggest problem. The Hammers have now not won in seven games and two months in all competitions and have only seven Premier League victories all season. They tackle Blackburn Rovers, then go to another relegation candidate Wigan before finishing with a home match against a woefully out-of-form Sunderland.

Grant admitted this Saturday's home game against fellow strugglers Blackburn is now a do-or-die match. Depending on other results, defeat at Upton Park to Steve Keane’s side could see the Hammers relegated. The embattled Israeli, who went down last season with Portsmouth, conceded there was no margin left for error in an error-strewn season. "We have to take points next weekend - these are now the last games," he said. "There is no time to recover after this. It is pressure but it is a challenge. We have the chance to stay in the league if we win these three games. First we have to look to the next game. I think it is the most important and is a great chance. If we win, everything will be open to stay in the league. We need to take the points and it doesn’t matter how. It will be very important for us. I know the supporters are waiting for this game so it will be a good opportunity. We can take a lot of positives into the next game, which will be difficult, but we are at home and we can do it."

The best results for West Ham United yesterday came away from the City of Manchester Stadium with Wolves failing to beat ten-man Birmingham and Manchester United losing to keep the title alive. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side still to face Blackburn and Blackpool in their last two games. "We wanted Blackburn to be fighting against relegation as well," Grant added. "The other teams didn’t win so it stayed more or less the same. We have the chance to stay in the league." With only Blackburn of the bottom group winning on Saturday and Wolves drawing yesterday, West Ham could have jumped out of the relegation zone with a win. The fact that manager Avram Grant saw his tactical notes blown from his grasp and all over the field with 10 minutes to go perhaps best summed up how it went. "I am taking positives," insisted Grant. "We started badly but recovered well. This is a team with lots of players missing. That's important."

Yet the Upton Park chief admits performances do not matter any more. He said: "The thing now is that we have to get points and it doesn't matter how we get them. Saturday will be a good game, it's a good opportunity. Not many of the teams around us have won so I still think we have a good chance to stay in this league. The next game is the most important and it's a big challenge. If we win it everything will be open and we don't need to think about other things. I think we will need seven to nine points from our last three matches. In the last two weeks most of the teams fighting relegation were playing at home and I thought they would take more points than they did. I thought last week we might need nine points but now I think it might be seven. We showed here, though, that we can do it. The last two games everyone has seen that we deserved more than what we have got."

So that was that- Avram Grant facing the flak alone as West Ham’s top brass failed to show up. Sullivan had never intended to attend yesterday, according to City officials, but they were expecting Gold, Brady and Brown. Instead, the West Ham table in the boardroom dining area went unused and their seats at the front of the directors’ box were left empty. "We will be there for the last three matches," Sullivan insisted last night. Three final matches for a club teetering on the brink and dependent on a remarkable turnaround under a manager who appears incapable of inspiring.

"When you have a project it takes time to make things better," Grant said. "If you have a vision it gets done step by step. An owner of one of my former clubs once asked me why I thought he had no patience and I said 'because you want the result yesterday'. All owners want results yesterday. All clubs need immediate results, but they also need to have vision for the seasons ahead. Owners spend a lot of money and sometimes, because of that, they expect you to push a button and create success. But football is not a normal business. Manchester City brought a lot of players and they have had to show patience for success. Chelsea brought a lot of players and they haven't won the Champions League yet. I have a job to do and I'm committed to it. I believe in all my heart that if we take the right steps this club will be a good club that will be worth watching."

Worth watching maybe, but the more pressing concern is which division the club will reside in next season? The answer to that, like all Grant's best laid plans, is blowing in the wind.

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