Saturday, 7 May 2011

Don't Eat The Fish!

The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner...
It is at this stage of the season when a familiar but often bankrupt saying gets trotted out in assessing the relegation battle, writes Jeremy Wilson in this morning's Telegraph. ‘Too good to go down’. Ostensibly, if there is a club down in the relegation zone to fit this theory, it is surely West Ham. On the pitch, the club have the Premier League’s Player of the Year and a squad containing six England internationals. Off it, they have vastly experienced owners, a manager who came within inches of winning the Champions League and, at a fraction of the cost of building a new ground, have secured a move to the Olympic Stadium. But, at just about every level of the club, West Ham’s season is threatening to become a story of being too bad to stay up and all involved must share some blame for the club's Premier League relegation predicament.

The jury was out on Avram Grant after he worked at Chelsea and then Portsmouth in such exceptional circumstances but, following a miserable season at West Ham, it is poised to reach an unfavourable verdict. Assessing his impact at Chelsea was always difficult given the quality of the players at his disposal, notes Wilson. Grant is always quick to mention that he guided them to their only Champions League final but, against that, he is also the only Chelsea manager since 2004 to end a season without a trophy.

At Portsmouth, Grant can point to the FA Cup final but also relegation with a squad who, for all the club’s problems, contained considerable quality. West Ham has surely been the most authentic test of his managerial skills and the table does not lie. Grant has now spent 66 of the football seasons’ last 70 weeks in the relegation zone. Few expect him to survive beyond the end of the season. Indeed, given that co-owner David Sullivan firmly believes that any manager must have a “fear factor”, the appointment of Grant is difficult to understand. This, after all, was the man known as ‘Uncle Avram’ at Portsmouth.

Yet while Grant might not be the most fearsome personality, he is certainly dignified and dogged. He was again upbeat on Friday and dismissive of pundits who have criticised him. During a team-bonding meal this week, he said that the barbs from some former notable players of the club, including Geoff Hurst, Julian Dicks and Tony Cottee had been used as a motivational tool. "It was fish," explained Grant. "We spoke about what people say and don't say, and if they need to speak or not. I told them the story about the fish. Why it's on the table? [Because it opened its mouth and drowned]. I told them the story and they ordered steak. We spoke about one of the former players that spoke too much.

"Sometimes ex-players forget what they are doing. One of the players that [was] criticising one of our players was relegated twice at this club. So I think when you point the finger at others you have to look at yourself. Look, if I listen to the voices around us we would have been relegated in December. All the voices of the former players started to speak in October and November and said that in January we would be 20 points behind. I respect everyone's opinion. Everyone has an opinion. It is good for people to have opinions, but I don't have to agree with it. Our target this season was to stay in the league, then build a better future for the club, and I still think we can still reach the target."

If Grant is to achieve that goal then he will need a squad containing Scott Parker, Matthew Upson, Robert Green, Carlton Cole, Kieron Dyer and latterly Wayne Bridge to finally prove their worth. Add in the quality of Robbie Keane and Thomas Hitzlsperger, thinks Wilson, as well as solid Premier League performers like Gary O’Neil, Luis Boa Morte and Mark Noble, and it is possible to argue that West Ham have the makings of a squad that should challenge for Europe rather than be consumed by the threat of relegation.

Clearly, injuries have debilitated the team this season but, equally, there have been notable failures. Questions can justifiably be asked about the recruitment of Pablo Barrera, Winston Reid and Lars Jacobsen last summer and certainly Benni McCarthy in January 2010. Too many ageing or injury-prone players have not justified their wages and the flabby excess that was accumulated under the previous Icelandic owners has not been completely worked off. "When the [January] window closed, you are thinking ‘I’ve done enough — this is a good squad of players’,” said co-cowner David Gold. "It’s only in hindsight that you look back and realise in actual fact you hadn’t."

Major changes can be expected this summer regardless of whether West Ham survive, with Gold admitting that it is not fair or realistic to expect England internationals to stay if they are relegated. It was those comments that drew Grant into another disagreement with his employers ahead of West Ham United's biggest game of the season. While Gold expects Scott Parker to lead the queue of departures if Grant cannot keep the club in the Premier League this season, the Israeli has suggested talk of dropping into the Championship was unhelpful and poorly timed. "We need to think positively," the manager said. "I agree we need to be together and I feel that we are together. I don't want to think about negative thinking."

Grant insisted: "To put West Ham in a good position you need to keep the good players. A good positive player can help you do that. Juventus went down and they kept all their top players and now they are in the top [division] again. So I don't think that a team need to think about one year – you need to think more than one year. Newcastle were relegated and they kept their team and are now in the middle of the league. I can give you many examples. Most of the teams in the [Championship] have become much stronger. But we don't want to do that. We want to stay in the league and do it in the Premier League and I believe that we can do it."

Asked if he agreed with former Hammers boss Alan Curbishley, who branded Gold's comments unhelpful, Grant said: "I think yes. I don't know about the media. But David Gold was here yesterday and he seemed to me very positive. He spoke to me very positively. So I'm not sure about this." It is hard not to draw parallels, however, between the difficult press conference Grant was forced to face and the total support from above Ian Holloway enjoys at drop-zone rivals Blackpool. Wolves boss Mick McCarthy would not hear of relegation yesterday and there was nothing from the boardroom that suggested otherwise.

Yet, for the second week running, Grant was forced to tiptoe his way through the negativity of his paymasters. The truth, as is widely known, is that they are regretting their decision not to sack Grant and are preparing the groundwork for his summer departure. Just as they did with Gianfranco Zola a year ago. Again, Grant kept his bat straight, careful to talk only about the football. "I spoke with [Zola] last year and I had sympathy for his situation," he said. "It was his first step as a manager. I came to this situation after so many years in football and he faced it in his first season. He tried his best and, of course, I have sympathy for this."

The 56-year-old clearly wanted to paint an upbeat picture about his team's prospects of moving off the bottom of the table and out of the relegation zone in the next three games. "What's new?" was his response when asked to respond to renewed speculation over his future. Which brings us to the third culprit in West Ham's sorry story, states Wilson. From their treatment of Zola when he was manager to their collective absence at Sunday’s crucial away game at Manchester City, the key boardroom figures at West Ham have sparked controversy since taking charge of the club last year.

Yes, the size of the task they inherited should be acknowledged. After the collapse of the Icelandic economy and some of the lavish spending under previous owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, West Ham were left with debts and liabilities of £110 million. That inherited financial backdrop has hung over just about every decision that the two major shareholders, Sullivan and Gold, have made. Yet, increasingly, both the decision to appoint Grant and then stick with him after a dreadful start to the season looks like the key mistake. Likewise, some of their public pronouncements over the past season have also been questionable. There was an official "save our season" game as early as November, while the recent admission that West Ham are likely to get relegated and that no show at Manchester City hardly conveyed a message of confidence in the team.

Writing in column today, Karren Brady complained that three days after that defeat she was still being reminded she wasn't at Eastlands. "For the record, I didn't attend because it was my daughter's birthday and I'm sure I would be more missed by my 15-year-old than by a bunch of professional footballers," she stated. "I'm living alone in a one-bedroom flat in London all week and don't see much of my family in the Midlands, so I hope Hammers fans will forgive me. I don't pretend to be a football expert but I do know how to run a business. We made the first trading profit since anyone in the office can remember. I realise that doesn't mean a lot to supporters who may shortly be suffering relegation blues but, behind the scenes, it is vitally important. I've also led the campaign to take our club to the Olympic Stadium, an historic achievement. My simple message to the carpers is this: Bog off."

In fairness, Sullivan and Gold have also been candid about their own mistakes. Grant said on Friday that they were under more pressure than him. "We have failed to deliver and the bottom line in football is that it’s a delivery business," said Sullivan. It would be dishonest to state that he [David Sullivan] is the most tactful of men but he is incredibly honest in all the interviews he gives, counters Brady. He prefers the truth to spin or PR gain for himself.

"Asked a question, he will always answer honestly - and be consistently surprised when his sentiments or motives aren't understood," she said. "He and joint owner David Gold came to Upton Park with dreams the size of whales and tomorrow, if we don't win, they could be shrunk to tadpoles, for a few weeks anyway. I can practically hear Sullivan's heart breaking at our current predicament and, while David Gold tries to convey statesmanlike messages, he suffers as much, but privately. Unlike the non-British owners of most of our top clubs, my chairmen have no intention of selling out and spending their time counting their oil shares. They have always known West Ham are a marathon task but they, like the rest of us, just didn't think it would start like this. So, accepting full responsibility for the current plight, we have to get on with it - and pray we beat Blackburn."

Sullivan and Gold, who personally visited the training ground on Thursday, are clearly at West Ham for the long haul. The expectation is that they will increase their joint stake from 62 to 82 per cent this summer. They also have a three-year option on buying the remaining shares in the club. The one obvious boardroom success has been the way vice-chairman Karren Brady skilfully spearheaded the Olympic Stadium bid. Legal challenges permitting, it was a victory that, in the long-term, could be more significant than anything that happens this season on the pitch. In the meantime, there's no reason to become alarmed West Ham fans, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight, but is there anyone on board who knows how to run a football club? Oh... and don't call me Shirley.

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