Monday, 16 May 2011

Portals Of Discovery

A man's errors are his portals of discovery

One by one they walked off, the golden generation. Jermain Defoe shirtless; Joe Cole man of a match he would never wish to remember; Paolo Di Canio staring straight ahead, perhaps contemplating his pledge to commit suicide if West Ham were relegated. In the middle, eyes cast down, was Trevor Brooking, the man who epitomised all the grace and dignity of Upton Park, who had offered himself as manager after Glenn Roeder had collapsed in his office suffering from a brain tumour. They had taken 22 points from their last 11 matches and it was not enough.

Up in the stands at St Andrew's were David Gold and David Sullivan, writes the Independent's Tim Rich, who in 2003 were owners of Birmingham City but had been brought up West Ham fans; Gold amid what he called the "stench of poverty" of London's East End, Sullivan, further out in Hornchurch. Now they stand where Brooking once stood, at the helm of a West Ham side, perhaps not as glittering as that one, preparing for the electric chill of relegation.

For Gold it represents the "worst moment in all the years I've been supporting West Ham". The Hammers threw away a two-goal lead at Wigan on Sunday, with Charles N'Zogbia's injury-time goal returning the club to the second tier after six years in the Premier League. "I've been supporting West Ham & of course I wish I'd done things differently," said Gold on his Twitter feed last night. "I honestly believed with the players we brought in in Jan + the imminent return of Hitzlsperger, we had done enough to pull clear of danger. I know that Scotty Parker shared that belief with me and we both had confidence that we would retain our Premiership status."

Gold, who along with Sullivan took control of the club in January 2010, acted quickly following confirmation of the club's relegation by sacking the manager Avram Grant. In truth, writes Jacob Steinberg in today's Guardian, West Ham have done the right thing four months too late. Grant had been a dead man walking ever since his bosses tried to replace him with Martin O'Neill in January. Whatever the reasons for Grant staying then – some felt O'Neill was never going to come, others put it down to the shenanigans of Gold, Sullivan and Karren Brady in the media –it was a disastrous move. In the words of Rich, it was botched like an African military coup. If those involved knew anything about O'Neill, it should have been that he has a low embarrassment threshold and likes total control. At Upton Park he would probably have got neither. It is almost certain that none of the clubs that changed managers mid-season will be relegated. Had they waited they might have got Roy Hodgson.

Now the trio are just saving face. West Ham have been relegated but it did not have to be this way. Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion have both demonstrated the value of changing managers during the season. How different it all could have been if Grant had gone earlier. Owners and football club boards are often castigated for making big decisions such as replacing a manager, agrees Alan Hansen in the Telegraph, but you only have to look at West Bromwich Albion for evidence that, sometimes, the directors get the big calls right. Roberto Di Matteo was really unlucky to be sacked in February, but the club made the change by bringing in Hodgson and, not only have they stayed up, they could even finish the season in the top 10.

Then again, how different things could have been if he had never been appointed in the first place. Only West Ham could look at a manager who finished bottom of the league with Portsmouth and decide that he is the man for the job. After all, this is the same club that beat Bury 10-0 in 1983 and promptly signed one of their centre-backs, Paul Hilton. Grant has plenty of apologists, people often pointing to the Israeli taking Chelsea to the Champions League final in 2008 and losing to Manchester United only on penalties, but the fact remains that his side lost. As they did in the Carling Cup final to Tottenham Hotspur and in the quarter-final of the FA Cup to Barnsley.

Grant also took West Ham to the last four of the Carling Cup, where naturally enough they lost to Birmingham City. In that game West Ham were 3-1 up on aggregate at half-time of the second leg, only to collapse and lose in extra time. Afterwards supporters were bewildered to hear Grant reveal that he did not know what to say to his players at half-time, neatly exemplifying why West Ham were on their way down. That admission immediately springs to mind now. Leading 2-0 against Wigan Athletic at half-time in a game they had to win to stay up, it was all too predictable that they would be incapable of hanging on. And so it proved, N'Zogbia's goal confirming what many had suspected for a long time.

Once again Grant failed to respond to changes by the opposition's manager, Roberto Martínez's decision to throw on Victor Moses and Conor Sammon at the interval giving Wigan a greater menace in attack. In total West Ham have thrown away 22 points from winning positions, a damning indictment of their manager. Leads have been frittered away more clumsily than a hapless detective blundering his way through a case.

Last season West Ham also struggled and essentially they stayed up only because the three sides that went down, Burnley, Hull City and Portsmouth, were so wretched. Remarkably 35 points was enough to secure safety but it was clear that major rebuilding was required in the summer. It never happened. Even though Sullivan and Gold said that every player bar Parker was for sale, hardly the most inspirational of messages, the squad largely remained the same. Going into the season without suitable full-backs was asking for trouble – five players have been used at left-back – while £8m was wasted on Pablo Barrera and Winston Reid, unforgivable errors of judgment when funds were so limited.

A 3-0 defeat by Aston Villa on the first day highlighted the problems and West Ham did not win until they beat Tottenham on 25 September, a game that ultimately provided nothing more than another false dawn. What is more, they have managed to win only two home games against sides in the bottom half of the table, picking up just two points against the three promoted sides at Upton Park. Too often Grant has changed his side from game to game, robbing it of consistency and continuity, while he is tactically incoherent, often asking strikers to play on the wing due to a misguided desire to use a 4-3-3 formation.

In short, argues Rich, good managers do not relegate big clubs. Since the Premier League's inception there have been seven authentically big teams to have been relegated. Three – Nottingham Forest in 1993, West Ham in 2003 and Newcastle two years ago – were run by men afflicted by alcoholism or serious illness (Brian Clough, Roeder and Joe Kinnear). Two – Blackburn in 1999 and Leeds in 2004 – by men who had either never managed before or who had essentially retired from front-line football (Brian Kidd and Eddie Gray). Where does that leave Grant? he asks. When removing Gianfranco Zola, whose campaign total of 35 points would have seen West Ham relegated, Gold and Sullivan were accused of a ruthless lack of sentiment, but with Grant, they have not been ruthless enough.

Yet the blame cannot entirely be pinned on the manager, however, which is fortunate seeing that there is plenty to throw around. The players are also culpable for the club’s relegation, argues Hansen. With West Ham United, we are not talking about a club who have just come into the Premier League with all the challenges that brings in terms of squad strength and finances, he states. They are an established top-flight club with terrific support, but they also have a group of players that should not be anywhere near the relegation zone, never mind the bottom of the table. I can’t recall the last time that a team with so many England internationals ended up relegated from the Premier League.

The Hammers have a spine of Robert Green, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole running through their team and they are all England internationals. When you look at that quartet, you would say that it would be impossible for West Ham to be in the position they are in. They have other good players, too, so something has gone badly wrong somewhere and nobody at Upton Park can be absolved of the blame. West Ham have had some horrific results and performances and they are where they deserve to be. Green has been shaky, still unnerved by his error against the USA in the World Cup. Upson has been so inspirational as captain that most onlookers assume Parker has the armband. Freddie Piquionne, though (sometimes) willing, is wayward in front of goal. Robbie Keane's loan deal stipulated that West Ham would have to pay £6m to Tottenham if he kept them up. His misses in recent games were so pathetic that conspiracy theorists might have wondered if he was doing it on purpose, simply so he would not have to spend another season at Upton Park. And then there is Cole, who failed to take a gilt-edged chance to win the game against Wigan in stoppage time. Little wonder supporters have taken to calling him 'Can't Control'.

In fact, suggests Kevin McCarra, there should be an addition to the West Ham United crest. It surely ought to have the figure of a supporter hurling himself from the battlements of the castle. Despair is to be expected whenever a club is relegated, but there is a particular wilfulness to the collapse at Upton Park. This must be the best squad ever to install itself in the 20th and last berth of the Premier League.

Writing in today's Guardian, McCarra states the statistics speak of paralysis in a seemingly accomplished group. People will go on staring in wonderment at those 22 points shed from winning positions. The fall of West Ham is more fiasco than fate. Familiar elements of calamity are absent and, for instance, there are no parallels with the downfall of Leeds United, whose financial troubles made it essential to sell valuable players in the period during which they dropped from first the Premier League and then the Championship.

The case of West Ham is very different, if not unique. Given how much was loaded in their favour, it took persistence to come bottom. Regardless of any misgivings fans may have over the present owners, they cannot be accused of causing the blight, even if they wonder whether a busier January transfer window might have helped. In truth, West Ham did bolster the squad. The paradox of this club is that it has amassed footballers known to be capable who have floundered in one another's company. If anyone could avert their eyes from results, they might find themselves looking with admiration, for instance, at Demba Ba, the Senegal attacker who has scored seven times in seven starts since joining from Hoffenheim in January.

Even that welcome jolt did too little for flatlining form, notes McCarra. The result on Sunday emphasised the brittleness and unreliability of players whose standards should be much higher. West Ham, for instance, had available five men who are in the England squad or have been members of it in the fairly recent past. Some will scoff that this says little for Fabio Capello's judgment. Whatever the limitations of the players, however, the presence on the bench at the DW Stadium of an unused Matthew Upson, who is not completely fit, was still the epitome of underachievement. He had enough status to make two appearances at the 2010 World Cup and was still in the England squad last autumn. It seems nonsensical to think that he needed special motivation from Grant to perform too forcefully for his club before injury hampered him.

Indeed, the identity of the manager hardly seems to count at all, thinks McCarra. West Ham, for instance, tried the idealistic approach when appointing Gianfranco Zola in the autumn of 2008. The Italian injected some youth into the line-up and had his heart set on stylish football. The impact was a delight and the club came an admirable ninth in 2009. As with others before him, though, he witnessed the inertia returning. His side finished three points above the relegation places a year ago and Zola was sacked.

Of course, doubts must be raised about Sullivan and Gold, too. A relegation so shamefully hubristic requires, after all, a confluence of incompetence in which all parties are complicit. In their defence they rescued the club from going into administration when they took over in January 2010 and inherited a mess from the dreadful Icelandic owners, whose part in all this must not be under-estimated. The new owners have also secured the Olympic Stadium but, other than that, positives are thin on the ground. Successive managers, Gianfranco Zola and Grant, have been critically undermined while Gold's and Sullivan's comments in the media have been ill-advised.

Indeed, the events of Sunday evening tell us all we really need to know about David Sullivan, David Gold and the ever-popular Karren Brady, snarks Martin Lipton in the Mirror. Within an hour of the final whistle, after their club has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory once again, ensuring it will be Oakwell and St Mary's next season, rather than Old Trafford and the Emirates, they summon the manager into a room at the DW Stadium and give him the boot. They don't even tell the players, who are only informed when the sacked manager walks on to the team coach, tells them he has been fired, and says he'll see them around, as he has been offered a car to go back to London. The fact that Scott Parker and Carlton Cole insisted that Avram Grant travelled back with the rest of the team to London, notes Lipton, surely nails the lie that the Israeli was detested by the West Ham dressing room.

There is a far darker shame on the trio whose staggering disregard for the basic principles of man-management have taken West Ham over the precipice. Forget about all the stupid off-field stuff, urges Lipton, like sacking the popular training ground gofer - who was on just £200 per week - and then claiming he'd been retired on age grounds. Before admitting the players had demanded he stay and were willing to pay his wages out of their own pockets to keep him. Ignore the blow to internal morale of forcing club secretarial staff to work fewer hours to save a few bob. Or getting rid of the England team chef. Just recall mid-January, when Grant woke up on the morning of the home game with Arsenal to see his imminent sacking - and replacement by Martin O'Neill - being loudly proclaimed by every facet of the electronic media. It was a done deal. Grant was going to go. O'Neill was coming in. Except the same people leaking the news hadn't actually done the deal.

You can't blame O'Neill for that, either. He probably had a look at what he might have been getting into. Indeed, there are times when it would seem that any sensible manager would rather work for The Sopranos than the mob running West Ham. That Gold and Sullivan further undermined the club's flickering survival hopes by first admitting all the England internationals in the squad could go at the end of the season - how do you beat that for intelligence? asks Lipton - and then voicing public doubts over the long-term financial viability of the club was just the icing on the cake.

It is now five years since West Ham, who had finished ninth, contributed to the greatest FA Cup final in recent years, losing to Liverpool only on penalties. They had a bright young manager, Alan Pardew, and a team packed with exciting players such as Matthew Etherington, Yossi Benayoun and Dean Ashton. It has all gone wrong since then. A broken ankle suffered in training for England in 2006 eventually forced Ashton to retire, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano came, went and cost millions, Eggert Magnusson's spending spree in the summer of 2007 crippled the club's finances, players like Craig Bellamy, James Collins and Lucas Neill have been replaced with inferior versions or simply not at all, and there have been three relegation battles in five seasons. If anything, they have done well to last this long.

So the mind drifts back those eight long years when the golden generation, so preposterously relegated in 2003, fled Upton Park – Michael Carrick to Tottenham, Di Canio to Charlton, David James to Manchester City, Cole to Chelsea. Defoe handed in a transfer request less than 24 hours after relegation, a piece of tactlessness for which he has not been forgiven in east London. Former chairman, Terry Brown, mused that perhaps it was just their turn. While that aside was met with scorn by supporters, few would dispute that this is a deserved relegation. The names of Green, Hitzlsperger, Noble and Parker may soon be removed from West Ham shirts. They may not be a golden generation or even silver but they don't deserve to be the base metal that harsh economic reality will now dictate.

For being relegated is a horrible situation for any club, of course, but it will hit West Ham hard. Players will want to leave and they will face being another big club with a big fan base playing outside the Premier League, thinks Hansen. West Ham's finance director warned back in March that relegation would cost the club their key men. In his report on the club's annual accounts filed at Companies House, Nick Igoe revealed that 'a number of members of the first-team squad' would have to be sold in order to balance the books; namely, a filleting of that England international spine.

That said, West Ham will not allow those players to leave on the cheap following their relegation, according to chairman Gold. Football Writers' Association player of the year Parker, who is sure to attract a host of suitors, admitted prior to the Latics loss that he could not give any guarantees over his future should the club be relegated. But Gold insists that unless the East London outfit receive an acceptable offer for their key men, then they will remain part of the squad pushing for an immediate return to the top flight. "We are going to do everything in our power to keep our best players," he told Sky Sports News this afternoon. "I've said in the past it will be very difficult to ask an international to come and play in the Championship when traditionally England players aren't picked in the Championship. We are not in any hurry. We must receive the proper amount of compensation for any player that we sell. If we don't then the player will stay with us in the Championship."

Gold did accept that out-of-contract duo Matthew Upson and Kieron Dyer were now likely to seek pastures new, although he did grasp at the hope they could agree new terms with the Hammers. He said: "They are now free agents and they are free to move to a new club, or maybe sit down with us and sign a new contract." Gold and Sullivan must now prepare for a season outside the top-flight and the former has confirmed that there are likely to be wholesale changes over the summer.

For starters, they are aware of the need to generate funds, having reported losses of £20.6million for the year ending 31st May 2010. Relegation will mean at least a £20million cut in income from television money, making it all the more likely that they will be forced to offload their most prized assets. Igoe's report stated: "In the event that this [relegation] should happen, the board estimates that it would have to generate significant cash flows from the sale of a number of members of the first-team squad together with the associated wage savings in order to compensate for the inevitable reduction in income following relegation. The board believes that the necessary savings could be achieved by means of this strategy."

The Hammers have already trimmed their wage bill by almost £10million, cutting it from £60million in 2008-09 to £50.3million last year - reducing the proportion of salaries to turnover from 79% to 70%. David Gold said last week that if the Hammers were relegated, he and co-owner David Sullivan would have to inject loans of 'between £20m and £40m, depending on circumstances, which will probably never be repaid'. When Avram Grant remarked three weeks ago that it was "money time", West Ham United's now ex-manager was borrowing the phrase from the American sporting vernacular, meaning the moment of truth. Now, observes the Guardian's David Hytner, the expression has taken on a more literal meaning.

Sullivan and Gold must count the cost and it is hurting them as deeply as the footballing plight of the club that they supported as boys. The pair saved West Ham from going to the wall when they took over in January 2010 from the Icelandic owners, whose spending spree in the summer of 2007 had crippled the club's finances. However, despite putting cost-cutting measures in place, which have saved an estimated £25m, the debts still stand at £80m, with Sullivan saying last week that "this club is in a worse financial position than any other in the country". In his assertion, he might have factored in that West Ham still have the eighth-highest wage bill in the Premier League. "All the debts are football or bank debts secured on the stadium and training ground so there is no route via administration," Sullivan said. "West Ham really is a football club where the football and bank debts exceed the value of the club."

West Ham are in line to receive parachute payments, under the terms of the Premier League's collective TV rights deal, while they are in the Championship; the figure is £48m over the next four seasons, with the first two payments being £16m; the final two £8m. Yet Premier League clubs receive a sum of somewhere between £40m-£45m a season, at least, so the mathematics here are depressing. Revenue streams that relate to ticket sales and merchandising will also be hit hard.

The consolation, states Hytner, is that in Sullivan and Gold, West Ham have benefactors who will not fly by night. "When we bought the club, we budgeted for relegation in the first season," Gold said. "While David Sullivan and myself are here, the club will not be in any danger." To underline that commitment, the pair have also underwritten the £40m loan from Newham council for the £95m move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford which, legal challenges from Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient permitting, they hope to complete in time for the 2014-15 season.

One of the many worries at West Ham concerns how they might fill the 60,000-capacity Olympic stadium, particularly if they remain outside the Premier League, and another relates to the viability of the business plan once they make the big move as balancing the books would become more difficult. Despite everything, the club have today reiterated their determination to relocate. A spokesman for the east London team said they were "totally committed" to making the £486m venue their new home after London 2012, and that the club's original bid, which was chosen in March, made provisions for both Premier League and Championship football. "As far as our plans for the Olympic Stadium are concerned, we are continuing at a pace," he said. "All things are connected but the club will obviously set about rebuilding so that we are in a position to challenge at the highest level in the Championship and get back to the Premier League as soon as possible."

To that end West Ham have begun their search to find a successor for axed boss Grant today. Kevin Keen will assume the caretaker duties on Sunday but the former Hammers midfielder is not considered to be in with a chance of succeeding the Israeli. Keen is likely to be kept on by the club in his capacity of first-team coach next season under the new regime but a host of Grant's backroom staff could be moved on. Senior coach Paul Groves and goalkeeping coach David Coles were both brought in by Grant from Portsmouth 11 months ago but now face an anxious wait over their futures.

David Gold, talking to Sky Sports, warned fans not to expect an announcement imminently; although privately it is hoped the process can be completely in under two weeks. The 74-year-old co-chairman said: "The sooner the better, that's important. The sooner the better because there's lots of work to do, an enormous amount of work. But at the same time we musn't be rushed, this will be a very important appointment. You're choosing a manager that's good enough to get you out of the Championship and capable of continuing once we've achieved that.

"We're looking at everybody, now it's known that we're looking for a new manager. This is one of the reasons why we moved quickly - one of many reasons of course - but it's important that we have time for CVs to come in to us. I'm sure there'll be many, many managers that see the West Ham job as challenging, exciting. Not only will we be fighting to get back into the Premier League but we're also preparing ourselves for probably the most exciting event in the history of West Ham United Football Club - the move to a new stadium which is something that we've never done. So all of these challenges have got to be addressed and it's important that we pick the right person. We'll be speaking to everybody; we're just looking for the best person."

The final word on this depressing day goes to first-team debutant Jordan Spence, who spoke eloquently of the disappointment in the United dressing room following the devastation on Sunday evening. The highly-rated 20-year-old made his first senior start for the Hammers at the DW Stadium but admitted his joy soon turned into disappointment. "The over-riding emotion at the moment is just huge disappointment," said the England Under 21 international, who has spent most of the season on-loan to Championship side Bristol City. "I don't actually have words to articulate how disappointed I am. It was my full debut on Sunday, but throughout the season, when I've been at West Ham I've been part of the squad. I've been part of the squad from the first day of the season to the last and it's hard to take," he told the club's official website.

"We have been relegated and we can't underestimate the Championship is a difficult league, but I can say that I and whoever else is out there will do everything we can to bring us back to where we deserve to be. We're a big club in the Premier League so we're an even bigger club in the Championship." Indeed, but as the likes of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest prove, being a big club with a big support counts for nothing where the Hammers are going.

West Ham and the lower division are not strangers to one another, of course, but they had featured in the Premier League for nine of the past 11 campaigns. The side ought to have retained their elite membership, insists McCarra. Last week Scott Parker was named Footballer of the Year By the Football Writers' Association. It felt appropriate to the times of anxiety in the economy that the prize should go to a good and diligent midfielder rather than a self-absorbed star, but Parker will still know he has been part of a West Ham line-up that has not conducted itself well enough.

It is far less harmful than it once was to tumble from the Premier League. That parachute payment would amount to £48m if West Ham spent the next four years in the Championship and they will collect £16m of it in the first season alone. Indeed, their next set of opponents will resent these well-heeled newcomers. Players will still leave Upton Park if there is a suitable club to join in the Premier League, but West Ham should not be distraught. While the circumstances are poignant, the club must embrace the necessity of creating a new line-up; in young Jordan Spence they may already have a foundation stone.


Anonymous said...

Superb article - well done.

Jamie said...

Absolutely epic read in every sense!

Lee said...

Excellent post.


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