What if one split second sent your life in two completely different
48 hours on and the postmortem into the club's untimely demise continues apace. Writing in today's Telegraph, Henry Winter states West Ham's shambles of a season has soiled the name of a once-respected club. The man who stands accused above all others is Avram Grant as West Ham's fate was sealed most assuredly on the training ground. Sometimes, notes Winter, a snapshot from a game tells a thousand stories about a club. The pivotal, revealing moment involved Wayne Bridge, a player loaned to West Ham because Manchester City didn’t rate him, making elemental mistakes as Charles N’Zogbia ran at him. Typical. Lack of thought, anticipation and urgency condemned West Ham. When the Wigan midfielder cut in from the right, Bridge should have forced him on his lesser, right foot. The danger contained in N’Zogbia’s left had just been seen with an unstoppable free kick. Naively, Bridge allowed N’Zogbia to work the ball on to his left, the inevitable happened, the net billowed and West Ham were tumbling into the Championship.
That costly cameo encapsulated everything wrong about West Ham, argues Winter. First, an overpaid player underperforming. Second, an incident that screamed about the lack of a fight at the club, the failure to hold out against Wigan, throwing away a two-goal lead. Third, it highlighted a club-wide failure to prepare properly, a criticism that can be levelled at the board and manager’s office as well as players like Bridge. The full-back now leaves a stricken club, returning to City, who will doubtless offload him. Like Bridge, Avram Grant embodied the malaise at Upton Park.
Winter states many people in football knew Grant’s limitations but West Ham listened to the wrong people. Players like strong, decisive managers who inspire them with good training sessions, intelligent tactics and rousing words. That patently did not happen with the sorrow-filled Grant. West Ham’s season was lost at much at Chadwell Heath as Upton Park, he says. The club’s co-owner, David Gold, told Sky yesterday of how he found only “professionalism’’ on visiting their training ground, a view that contrasted with BBC’s Lee Dixon. He saw only “shambles”.
As West Ham headed towards the rocks, further evidence of Grant’s slack hand on the tiller was supplied by the distinguished London-based correspondent of Suddeutsche Zeitung. Raphael Honigstein reported that a West Ham midfielder asked Grant an important question before the Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge on April 23: "Are we supposed to press on Essien and Lampard or sit?" Grant allegedly replied: "You have to work that out yourselves on the pitch." West Ham were swept aside 3-0.
How Grant keeps getting jobs perplexes Winter. It, for him, remains one of the great mysteries of the modern game. A well-known Premier League manager last week confided his utter bemusement at Grant’s career, pointing out that it was unfair on up-and-coming managers and concluding that Grant must have some seriously influential friends. He does and West Ham paid the price. West Ham need to rediscover the old principles that once made them such a respected, properly-run club. They need to listen to people other than agents. They need to take their time in recruiting the right successor to Grant, employing somebody who can genuinely motivate millionaire footballers.
In short, West Ham need to shape up, and in doing so deliver the plot twist to end a sorry chapter. In the film Sliding Doors there are two storylines – we see what happens to the main character when she misses her train home and then, in an alternative plot, what happens when she gets it. It is all about how fate can change your life; the fine margins that make a big difference. So was the night of Jan 18, 2010, West Ham United’s ‘sliding doors’ moment? asks Jason Burt. It was then that the decision was reached by interim chairman Andrew Bernhardt about who would buy the club.
Would it be David Sullivan and David Gold, the former owners of Birmingham City, or the Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes? So close had the contest become that Rothschild, the bankers handling the sale, had even prepared alternative press releases – one congratulating Sullivan and Gold, the other Fernandes. Sullivan and Gold won and post-relegation will increase their stake from 62 per cent to 82 per cent. The pair say they will also invest, through loans of up to £40 million, to prop up the stricken club. They also have an option to buy out the remaining stake owned by Straumur, the Icelandic bank which inherited the club after the collapse of the business empire of former owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson.
Many of West Ham's problems can be traced to that disastrous regime, says Burt. The reckless buying, the false promises over investment, the crippling liabilities – and also the terrible costs of the Carlos Tévez affair. There are still two instalments outstanding on the £21 million the club were ordered to pay Sheffield United while "exceptional items" – compensation and legal fees – in the past four years have totalled a staggering £51.1 million. But when Sullivan and Gold took over it was also an opportune time to acquire the club. With the credit crunch biting, West Ham, with a paper-thin squad and a relegation battle to fight needed working capital and that led to a quick sale. Debts were later declared to be £110 million. The critical figure was £38 million, which was the amount the banks wanted to call in. Credit lines were stopped almost overnight.
Burt believes Fernandes would have kept Gianfranco Zola as manager but it was clear that Sullivan and Gold did not want him. In the event, Zola narrowly avoided relegation but this was a manager who had led the club to ninth in the Premier League the season before and who had dealt with the frequent sale of players as West Ham tried hard to stay afloat. What then happened was bad management — from top to bottom. In fairness, Sullivan has accepted the blame for the appointment of Avram Grant as manager and for the stewardship of the club which has led to relegation.
In a recent interview, Sullivan admitted he had failed this season but pledged to put things right. Grant’s tenure has been a calamity, from his training regime and his tactics to his motivational skills and communication. As Winter observed, Grant sleepwalked to relegation. He was not, despite claims, West Ham’s first choice, although the owners were encouraged by his record at Portsmouth and Chelsea, where he had dealt with a variety of adversities. A four-year £1 million-a-season contract was awarded. Maybe the decision to take Grant on was also because he was deemed to be malleable.
West Ham’s transfer activities last summer were not encouraging, with the uninspiring arrivals of the likes of Winston Reid and Pablo Barrera, while off-field cutbacks, many of them necessary, affected morale. The club needed to hit the ground running at the start of this season but found themselves grounded. It quickly became apparent that Grant’s managerial skills were limited and the club tried to improve the set-up, with the appointment of Wally Downes as a defence coach, rather than replace Grant immediately. There followed the badly-handled wooing of Martin O’Neill and Sam Allardyce in January as the club cast around for a new manager.
Grant, it is understood, has argued that the club have not spent what they promised and that he inherited a group of players who did not have the stomach for the fight. Grant used this same argument during his time as Portsmouth manager when he also questioned the mental toughness of the players, notes Burt. Given that the likes of Scott Parker have hailed the work done by club psychologist Mike Griffiths, then Grant’s argument appears even more flawed.
The public statements from the owners have not helped. At times, the role of vice-chairman Karren Brady, who has been working part-time and whose salary is paid for by Sullivan and Gold, has been questioned. There has also been criticism that West Ham’s desire to occupy the Olympic Stadium led to them taking their eye off the ball.
There have also been the strange playing sagas of McCarthy – fined for failing to embrace a weight-loss regime before he received a pay-off – and Danny Gabbidon, whose career has been blighted by injury. It is understood Gabbidon was also asked whether he would like a pay-off, seemingly without Grant’s consent.
There was even a bizarre theory that the owners wanted the club to be relegated — that it was in some way part of a business plan to slash costs, move on highly-paid players without the supporters complaining and to rebuild at a lower cost base. But that theory works only if the owners acquired the club for next to nothing – which they vehemently deny. If it were true, West Ham would not have paid loanees Wayne Bridge £90,000 a week and Robbie Keane £65,000 a week to try to avoid relegation. Besides, a business plan which accepts a £30 million hole in television money and risks all on a swift return from the Championship, would not even find its way on to Brady’s other big project: the television programme The Apprentice.
We all know the scene, agrees Neil McLeman in the Mirror. Lord Alan Sugar in the middle of the boardroom, Nick Hewer at his left hand, Karren Brady to the right. In front of them, the three contenders for those two famous words, fighting like ferrets in a sack to avoid being on the receiving end of the finger of fate. But as the wreckage of West Ham’s season lays strewn all along the road back from Wigan, maybe it is time for Brady to move from the normal seat to the one left vacant for her on the other side of the table. Between them, thinks McCleman, Brady, Gold and Sullivan have presided over the most humiliating season in Upton Park’s proud history. One of them, if not all three, truly deserved to be told: "You’re fired!"
The trio showed more alacrity in determining the identity of their chosen scapegoat than at any other time over the past nine months as they summoned Avram Grant to a room at the DW Stadium to sever his contract within an hour of the final whistle being blown on the club’s Premier League life. That Grant’s players demanded he accompany them on the trip back to London, rather than being a back-seat passenger on the longest taxi ride in history, with only himself to mull over where it went wrong, made a nonsense of the allegations that he was not wanted by his squad, argues McCleman.
Grant, an honest man, will reflect on his own complicity, starting with a failure to demand the signing of more players with the mental - and physical - strength to deal with the challenge the club faced; men prepared to follow the inspirational Scott Parker over the parapet and into combat. Too often, winning positions were squandered, never more fatally than at Wigan, where the Hammers went from surviving for at least another week onto the execution block in the space of half an hour.
Yet amid all the chaos and tears, the blame game can only start and finish with the architects of the fallen edifice, those guilty of a series of catastrophic blunders that sapped morale and spirit and undermined everything Grant and his coaching staff tried to put in place. Over the past couple of days, Sullivan and Brady have gone into purdah, saying nothing, leaving Gold as the public face - the same Gold, of course, who admitted 10 days ago that all the England internationals in the squad could go at the end of the season if they were relegated.
"Our fans and all of us right now are hurting and feeling sorry for ourselves and blaming the referees and blaming our luck," he said. "That’s okay. We’re entitled to grieve and it can go on for a couple of days or maybe a couple of weeks. But sooner or later we have to stop grieving and feeling sorry for ourselves and start talking about promotion and getting back into the Premier League and not relegation. The advantage we have, bizarrely, is that we’ve got an extra week because we now know our fate. We’re in the Championship and we know that we have to rebuild the squad and prepare ourselves for life in the Championship. More than just for life in the Championship, we have to prepare a squad of players that is going to get us back at the first time of asking."
Easier said than done, of course. And while Sullivan and Gold have plenty of experience of life in football's elevator shaft, this time it is different. Sullivan spoke last week of a £20m-£40m loan he and Gold would need to make next year to keep the club going. There will be the £12m in Premier League parachute money but, as part of the deal to take over the Olympic Stadium, West Ham gave financial guarantees over the £95m conversion costs and the controversial £40m loan from Newham Council. Plans for retractable seating would add another £100m to the costs - with only £35m from the Government for keeping the athletics track, which means the equivalent distance of four double-decker buses between the front row of seats and the pitch.
It doesn’t look clever, but Gold insisted: "It’s not at risk, absolutely not. In fact, we were budgeting last year for relegation. We’ve always budgeted for the possibility of relegation. When we inherited the club we were on the brink of relegation at that time and it’s prudent to budget for the worst-case scenario." Well, that has arisen. In an open letter to David Sullivan, the Independent's James Lawton insists actions must now speak so much louder than platitudes. You have to be patient in football but also recognise a lost cause, he states. How was it that you took so long to see you were working from a deck promising doom?
Dear Mr Sullivan,
You may not deem this the most agreeable time to resurrect the question – though it is freshly vexing – which asked whether you, your co-chairman, David Gold, and your chief executive, Karren Brady, really had either the background or the touch of passable working courtesy to run a team on Hackney Marshes, let alone one of the most widely cherished in these islands.
However, there is another one which springs to mind in the wake of your battlefield dismissal of manager Avram Grant at the moment of relegation at Wigan on Sunday night. It concerns the imminence of your next open letter to the fans of West Ham.
This is because your last one – which was effectively a lingering death warrant on Grant's predecessor Gianfranco Zola – came more than a year ago and revealed an ignorance of the dynamics of a viable football club. Inevitably, there is now a concern that the lessons of the current disaster will remain unlearnt in the next few critical weeks.
Certainly, the worry was hardly soothed away when your co-chairman appeared on television yesterday with the assurance that the West Ham tradition would be preserved even in these new and difficult circumstances and that one benefit for the first Premier League club officially doomed this season was that you had an extra week to find the right new manager. But then how would you know
who that might be?
Gold talked about studying CVs. CVs, many would say, are items to be perused by committees – including, perhaps, the Premier League one which decides on the right and fitting person credentials of club owners – not the people who are in charge of season-by-season survival at the highest level of club football.
The trouble is, Mr Sullivan, that the performance which provoked in you so much rage, and kept you up all night in your Essex mansion while you penned that letter, has been reproduced at such regular intervals that the subject of chronic underperformance can only be addressed by you again if it is accompanied by some even vaguely plausible answer to another insistent question.
Do you remember what you said after Wolves won 3-1 at Upton Park on 25 March last year? When stripped of high emotion it was that you were drawing a line beyond which the club could never again descend on your watch. Perhaps a brief refresher might help. "I'm writing this on Wednesday morning," you reported, "I had no sleep last night, having watched the shambolic performance. I was as angry and upset as every supporter in the stadium at the disorganised way we played, allowing Wolves too much space so that they looked more like Manchester United. This was the culmination of five defeats, including an appalling performance against Bolton. Individually, we have some very good players but this is not being converted into good performance."
Perhaps Sullivan scrutinised carefully his CV. Or on this occasion maybe not. Had he done so, he might have noted that his track record did not exactly guarantee a dynamic influence. When this became so uncomfortably apparent in his stewardship of the team, Sullivan then performed one of the most futile public relations exercises in the history of professional sport. He allowed the name of Martin O'Neill to become firmly entrenched in the minds of West Ham supporters, a stimulating process by any standards, and made Grant one of football's ultimate examples of a dead manager walking. The Israeli even threw his scarf to some sympathetic fans. Of course, the confused fans didn't get an open letter on this occasion. They got some coy obfuscation from Ms Brady in her celebrity newspaper column.
Yesterday, continues Lawton, Sullivan's pal Gold insisted that West Ham would carry its proud tradition down the road to the Olympic Stadium. He mentioned the Hammer knights, Geoff Hurst and Trevor Brooking, and the statue of Bobby Moore outside Wembley. He might also have mentioned the current Footballer of the Year, Scott Parker, who just for a little longer will be marooned among the lost horizons of the Boleyn stadium. Gold was surely a proud witness at the ceremonials in the West End last week because his gold-painted Roller with the personalised number plates occupied a most prominent place at the hotel entrance. It was a reminder that, at least in football, all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
It was a reflection hardly discouraged by the small but rough piece of savagery that ended the reign of Grant, and stripped down what was left of his dignity, in the bowels of the Wigan stadium – a gesture which might have been compounded in its random cruelty had he been driven back to London with his own thoughts, and no doubt regrets, rather than travelling home with the team for the last time, only at the insistence of his players. You cannot buy class, Mr Sullivan, if it isn't available on the shelf but there are certain practical things you can do. You can try to grab hold of some of those things that flew past the head of Lord Sugar, another successful money-maker who discovered at White Hart Lane that even while he was turning a personal profit, as you did at Birmingham City, it is still possible to miss almost entirely the difference between successful business – and winning football.
A different criterion has to be applied. Football is about people, their flaws and strengths, and how you have to live with the former and exploit the latter. You have to have patience, but you also have to recognise a lost cause. When you saw this in the work of the novice coach Zola you stayed up all night and then expressed your rage. Then you let the cards fall as they might. They came down fortuitously the first time around, but on Sunday night they confirmed a losing run. How was it that you took so long to see you were working from a deck that was promising only doom?
It has to be presumed that by the time the O'Neill flyer floated gently to the ground you had forgotten the rousing climax to your open letter. "Now we need this team to show us their talent, their desire, their passion, their dare." Where was your daring, Mr Sullivan, when Avram Grant was left to struggle on against his fate and the dwindling chance of West Ham's survival? You also wrote, "It's hard being an owner who is a supporter. I hope for happier times soon. Thank you for sharing the same vision and dreams." These were platitudes, Mr Sullivan, and they carry as little value in football as they do anywhere else. Sometimes they have to be reinforced by action, the kind taken by your counterpart at West Bromwich Albion, Jeremy Peace.
When the hugely promising work of young coach Roberto di Matteo began to founder, when Albion showed every sign of freefall, Peace, with considerable reluctance, decided he had to move. He saw Roy Hodgson, in spite of his gruelling ordeal at Liverpool, as the man who might fashion survival. It maybe helped that, when Peace took over control at Albion nine years ago, he made a point of picking the brains of experienced football men. He made an effort to learn, in an unfamiliar world, what you can do – and what you can't. It's maybe not too late to give it a try.
So yes Avram Grant was hopeless but the buck has ultimately to stop with Gold and Sullivan at West Ham, says Martin Samuel in today's Mail. At least they did not go down fighting (well, not until last night's gala dinner, anyway). At least they did not mount one of those heroic rearguard actions to take the battle to the final day of the season, all bitten nails and hoping against hope. That would have been the real travesty.
Instead, he writes, West Ham United were relegated in a manner that told the story of their season: spineless, hopeless, hapless, clueless, with players incapable of locating even the basic tools required for survival and a manager, unable and ineffective on the sidelines. Without him, the club may still win a redundant final game against a Sunderland team that have also lost their way of late, to give the Barclays Premier League table a smattering of respectability, but it will be a false reading. The way it is now, after 37 games, is the truest reflection of West Ham's noxious season.
The manager deserved to go down, the players - most of them - deserved to go down, and the board? They have only themselves to blame, says Samuel. Not for undermining Avram Grant, but for employing him in the first place and sticking with him when it was perfectly obvious he was not up to the job. The fact David Gold now wishes he had done things differently is scant consolation. He could not have been given more opportunity to reach the conclusion that Grant's record merited dismissal.
Most observers point to January and the failed attempt to recruit Martin O'Neill as the moment when Gold and David Sullivan should have acted decisively. Yet, as recently as this month, when a series of straight wins against Blackburn, Wigan and Sunderland might have propelled the club towards safety, there were those inside the club counselling that West Ham would have more chance without the manager.
Who would replace him? asks Samuel. That was the telling observation. It was not a case of getting a man in, but of getting Grant out. He was seen as hindering any hope of recovery. At Wigan on Sunday, Jack Collison, starting his first game since March 3, 2010, looked exhausted after putting in a very good first-half display. Early in the second half, with West Ham 2-0 up, Grant's assistants were agitating for him to be replaced by Scott Parker to shore up midfield. Grant procrastinated. Wigan had now changed to a 4-4-1-1 formation with Charles N'Zogbia behind Hugo Rodallega. Perfect for the diligent Parker. Still no change. N'Zogbia scored after 57 minutes, Parker arrived after 61 - in a like-for-like exchange with Jonathan Spector - but by now the dynamic of the match had altered and the pressure was on.
West Ham's season is littered with moments like that, not least Grant's decision to go with Matthew Upson at Bolton Wanderers, once more against the advice of his assistants. Upson was substituted at half-time with West Ham 2-0 down. The buck stops with Sullivan and Gold as the football decision-makers and Grant' s initial employers.
Although vice-chairman Karren Brady is considered part of the triumvirate, she was not part of Grant's appointment, states Samuel. Her responsibilities have been to deliver a successful bid for the Olympic stadium and reduce the debt. With West Ham reporting a trading profit, that side of the business has been successful. If only football were as simple as that, though. In any other field, profit and potential expansion would be considered enough. In football, there is also a league table to contemplate, and West Ham will be bottom of it, whatever happens on Sunday.
Grant will shuffle off now, perhaps into the arms of his friend Roman Abramovich, while the senior players, including Parker, Robert Green and Carlton Cole, will begin searching for new careers in the Premier League. Sullivan and Gold will need thick skins to see them through the next few days, starting with last night's 1,000-seat end-of-season dinner at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Samuel argues any rightful criticism of them should also acknowledge two things: that they took over a diseased football club, close to extinction, and that their instincts in replacing Grant with O'Neill mid-season were correct.
Had those negotiations been successful it is very unlikely a plane would have flown over the scene of West Ham's relegation, trailing the banner, 'Martin O'Neill: Millwall legend', as happened to the forlornly impotent Grant on Sunday. The moment when he aimed his notes in frustration towards the bench at Manchester City, only to see them blown on to the pitch by a sudden gust of wind, summed up the ineffectuality of Grant's style.
The board correctly realised O'Neill was a galvanising force, the total opposite of the man they had appointed. Yet, the wooing process took too long, then became public knowledge, and O'Neill withdrew in embarrassment. The mistake at that point was in not admitting that the presence of Grant was equally as damaging as the absence of O'Neill and pushing ahead with a second choice, such as Allardyce.
Towards the end, the board appeared to concede that having made their bed they would have to lie in it, the club seeming almost resigned to their fate, with directors absent for significant matches and Grant revising the points total required to survive as each match slipped wastefully away. Meanwhile, Sullivan would sporadically surface to berate the players or paint a picture of an apocalyptic future in the Championship. Why, if life beyond the Premier League was so bad, did he take such a gamble by persevering with Grant, when all indications were that relegation would be the result?
Grant's final moments as West Ham manager, taken into a small room off the tunnel at Wigan's DW Stadium minutes after Sunday's game to be told of his fate, have also been condemned, but it would have been more spiteful to let him see out his tenure, thinks Samuel. That date at the Grosvenor followed by the final home match of the season could have been harrowing for Grant and at least he will be spared the prospect of standing on the touchline for 90 minutes, battered by the fury of the fans.
That fixture over, next is a phenomenon West Ham loyalists have known before: the fire sale. Loan players will be returned, out-of-contract players jettisoned and the stars of the team, such as they are, sold to the highest bidder. There is a desperate need to cut the wage bill when a reserve such as Julien Faubert earns £47,000 per week. Upson is on £60,000, while Cole receives a bonus of £10,000 per goal, so may need to be sold before West Ham hit the level where he might score more than five in one season (Cole has scored more goals in cup competitions, six, than in the league this season, just as Grant won more cup games, eight, than Premier League matches, seven).
Like a rotting oak, the squad require a chainsaw taken to the deadwood and it is fairly clear where the chopping should commence, suggests Winter. The free agents. If Gold and company get on with trimming the squad, they can build a war-chest for an incoming manager, particularly with the income from Scott Parker’s inevitable, sad departure. Left will be the young players, plus the odd freshly acquired loan and a few leading lights of the Championship, who know their way around West Ham's new surroundings. The drawback is obvious in that the club would need to strengthen greatly were they to return to the Premier League or risk becoming a yo-yo club, much like Birmingham City, the previous project of Sullivan and Gold.
A managerial short-list is already being compiled to include O'Neill, Allardyce, Paul Lambert of Norwich City, Steve McClaren - although he tried to distance himself from the job last night - and Dave Jones of Cardiff City. O'Neill remains a contender, but has unfinished business with Aston Villa due to be heard at a tribunal this week. He would be perfect, thinks Samuel, but he hardly enjoyed his last connection with the club at Christmas and West Ham have lost their Premier League allure. Allardyce may still be smarting at being overlooked in January, particularly as the job has just been made so much harder by relegation.
Having made such a fuss about his return to the top division, it is hard to see Neil Warnock leaving Queens Park Rangers, or the West Ham board being rash in appointing him, considering that few managers would have as little immediate rapport with the supporters, given Warnock's background with Sheffield United. The highly capable Chris Hughton could do a job in the Championship, posits Winter, as he proved with Newcastle United. Indeed, West Ham may get a rude awakening to accompany their diminished status. Better Premier League jobs might come up this summer, perhaps at Everton, Fulham or Aston Villa, catching the eye of their preferred candidates.
The selling point, of course, is potential. A 60,000- capacity stadium in 2014 could transform the fortunes of the club. Yet, the imperative is a swift return to the Premier League and this is not as easy as it sounds. Since the Football League play-offs were introduced, 22 of 30 relegated Premier League teams have found no way back at the first attempt. For this reason, Sullivan and Gold's next appointment needs to be a considerable improvement on their last.
Gold was right when he said that it was "time to stop grieving" over relegation, that they want to appoint a manager quickly to get on with the considerable amount of rebuilding work. But, implores Winter, look before you leap. This appointment is crucial; West Ham must find a manager who will lead them back into the Premier League before they walk out in the Olympic Stadium. Rather than just phoning agents for recommendations, West Ham are well advised to conduct a proper search. Many of the player contract situations can be sorted out by the board anyway.
West Ham also need to scout potential signings better. Kieron Dyer and Freddie Ljungberg had injury records that ran to more than one page. West Ham’s judgment on players, even loan signings, has been little short of shocking in recent years. Some are good, like Demba Ba. Too many are not fit to wear the famous claret-and-blue shirt. Benni McCarthy almost couldn’t fit in the shirt.
What is undeniably true is that West Ham can finally be purged of the Icelandic regime. Now, after a season of mistakes, comes the test as to whether Sullivan and Gold are true stewards or something else, states Burt; if the right storyline in that sliding doors scenario was chosen. In the meantime, cheer up because you know what the Monty Python boys say... yeah, that's right, "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."