Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Strange Gods In The Clearing

David Sullivan is a tough man to love. He dresses like a sun-dried Stalin. He's got the man-management skills of a frisbee. He wants to see the return of Norks on Sunday. He's friends with David Gold. And, after relegation with West Ham, snarks the Guardian's Fiver, he wants a return to chest-beating, badge-kissing, half-time-riot-act-reading, teacup-smashing Englishness in the Hammers dugout. "I think we will definitely get an English manager, or a British manager," roared Sullivan yesterday, crushing the hopes of Guus Hiddink, Marcello Lippi and co. "We do need someone who understands the culture and if you get someone with a knowledge of the East End that's so much better."

Quite why knowledge of the East End is such an advantage is not clear. Perhaps the new man will be expected to drive the team bus home from away games. Maybe he'll be expected to source an appropriate pie-and-mash shop for executive lunches. Could it be that future team-talks will be conducted only in rhyming slang? Either way, Barbara Windsor, Ray Winstone, Dick Turpin, Harold Pinter, Eric Bristow, Danny Dyer, Max Bygraves, the Kray twins, Dizzee Rascal, Samantha Fox, Private Joe Walker, Vera Lynn, Dirty Den and the rest of Albert Square have all had their odds slashed with bookies.

It's the nonsensical managerial trend a la mode – ex-players or fans-turned-pros seem magnetically propelled to the top of any shortlist, as if a couple of seasons at the club as a player makes a manager a better manager specifically for that club, or as if standing on the terraces as a lad could somehow help the man in the technical area bring the best out of Luis Boa Morte. West Ham are far from the only club guilty of this muddled geographically-based thinking (although it's hard to imagine Yeovil desperate to appoint "someone with a knowledge of the Houndstone Business Park" or Chesterfield keen to find "someone with a knowledge of the Unstone-Dronfield Bypass"). "We will wait to see who applies and wait to see what happens generally," Sullivan added, "but it will be resolved within two weeks, I should think."

Chris Hughton is the current favourite, the fact that he was born a couple of miles away from Upton Park making him the ideal man to lead this shambolic egg-stained hobo of a football club in the Championship next season, quips the Guardian. Well, that and the fact he clearly wants it, is readily available and was mightily successful at Newcastle in remarkably similar circumstances as is required now. And yes, I am nailing my colours to the mast here and saying he will be Manager XIV. Before that anoitment however, we must embrace weeks of hats in rings and pre-emptive snubs involving a cast of hundreds; emerging like Lawrence's strange gods from the forest into the clearing and then retreating.

So today we are informed that former West Ham forward Paolo Di Canio believes he is on the brink of securing a coaching position in England next season – and is saying he would "give everything" if he ended up at Upton Park. The 42-year-old has a coaching license and has constantly been linked with a return to the club pretty much since the day he left. "I believe my future will be in England," Di Canio told Sport Mediaset. "In the next few days something will happen, perhaps in an inferior division. English football is loyal, full of pride and I believe I'm close to returning to England. It is the country that I most love from a football standpoint."

The former Sheffield Wednesday and Celtic striker spent a total of seven years in the Premiership, four of which were at West Ham. "I am very saddened by West Ham's relegation," he said. "This team has always been in my heart. They have unique supporters. I would give everything for West Ham. I even have a Hammers tattoo." Despite his clear love for the club, Di Canio may have his work cut out convicing the West Ham hierarchy to hand him the reins at the relegated club, according to the Mail.

Sullivan has already appeared to rule out appointing fans' favourite Di Canio despite the 'mounting speculation' linking the Italian with the vacant hotseat. "The problem with Paolo is, although the fans would love it, I'm being realistic and he has no experience whatsoever being a manager," he said. "If you look at first-season managers the failure rate is enormous. If he'd done a season anywhere and was, say, top of Serie B in Italy with a team, I'd take the chance. My heart would say Paolo and the fans would say Paolo. But with someone who's a complete novice as a manager, with no experience, you just can't go with it." So back into the forest Paolo; it's lack of experience that has done for you. Although it could just as easily have been lack of 'Britishness'; or the fact we would have to employ a second manager to take control of most games north of Watford when you refuse to travel.

Next up is Martin O'Neill, with the West Ham board apparently refusing to give up on the possibility of persuading the Northern Irishman to become the club's new manager. Despite conflicting reports suggesting that O'Neill will reject any overtures should he be approached, the Telegraph insists Sullivan has made the Ulsterman his No 1 target. O'Neill has been out of a job since leaving Aston Villa in Aug 2010 and today's Mail reports he has the same concerns about West Ham as he had when he declined the invitation to succeed Grant in January and those close to the former Aston Villa and Celtic manager expect him to turn down any new offer.

Sources close to O’Neill point out that if he was not keen on West Ham when they were a Premier League club, he will be even less so now. Which is probably a fair point. Besides, he is more focused on settling his dispute with Villa over his departure last August and West Ham have privately vowed to appoint a new manager by the end of May. A Premier League managers’ arbitration panel is due to hear O'Neill's case this week.

The Mail thinks it more likely Cardiff manager Dave Jones will enter the picture at Upton Park now he has failed to gain promotion in six seasons with the Welsh club. Cardiff fans were heard chanting, ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’, after Reading’s third goal in the Championship play-off defeat last night. Jones said: "I will take stock of my position and decide whether I want to continue. It’s about what the owners want, what I want and what is best for this football club." Although you can't rule out Jones on the basis of nationality, you probably can on the basis he's had SIX FAILED promotion attempts. "We are looking for a winner," Sullivan said. "We want a new manager that has a proven record of success. We will appoint a manager that will achieve our aims. He will get the best out of the squad and foster a strong team spirit." Get ye back to the forest Mr Jones, assuming you can find the way.

The problem facing the West Ham co-owners is that other leading candidates have publicly declared a lack of interest in taking the job, reports Matt Lawton. Former England manager Steve McClaren has already said he has no desire to succeed Grant and Gus Poyet insisted this morning he would be remaining with the Brighton side he has just guided to promotion. "No chance," said Poyet, his response apparently motivated by the way West Ham treated his close friend Gianfranco Zola.

Avram Grant isn't helping either. The Israeli has warned any prospective United manager that he faces being undermined by the club's owners, and also claimed that six different managers were offered his job as recently as January. Speaking in the Guardian, Grant has revealed the extent of his disillusionment during a season that ended in relegation and says he wishes he had never taken the Upton Park job. Grant was sacked on Sunday, immediately after the team went down. "Avram points to January when Martin O'Neill was offered his job [when Grant was reportedly going to be sacked whatever the result against Arsenal on 15 January]," said a close friend. "He says six managers were asked by the club to take over, including Steve McClaren and Sam Allardyce, but they would not do it because they knew the situation there."

Grant is also disappointed that he was not allowed to take on the challenge of trying to return West Ham to the Premier League. "Avram feels frustrated. If he had not been sacked he believes he could have steadied the club and taken it on to much better things next season," the friend added. "He actually said that despite all the financial difficulties at Portsmouth, where players were not being paid and the club faced liquidation, that job was far easier than the West Ham one because he could concentrate on the on-field job."

In a stark warning to potential successors, Grant told a confidant of several "red lights" that warned him just how difficult the job would be due to a lack of finance for players. "Avram was advised not to take the job by several people in football but he wanted the challenge," said a source close to the Israeli. "He feels almost from the moment he took over the situation was virtually impossible. One example is that he was concerned about the lack of a strong midfield-enforcer type when he arrived so he wanted to sign Marc Wilson, who was a player for him at Portsmouth. Wilson wanted to sign for Avram and Portsmouth would have sold him for £3m but the owners would not go beyond £2.5m and so he ended up joining Stoke [City]."

Grant’s agent, Pini Zahavi, agrees that the board did not make enough money available for transfers, particularly to bring in defensive reinforcements. "Another example is Yakubu [Ayegbeni, the Everton striker]," he said. "West Ham were willing to pay £6m for him – David Moyes [Everton's manager] wanted £10m so the deal could not happen, but Avram was not allowed to spend [that] money on other signings, which he could not understand. He regrets not checking out the club properly to find out the true situation about the budget. His vision was for the club was to be a mini-Arsenal, developing their own players and style. He knew it would be difficult in the first season, fighting relegation at the same time. But if he knew then what he knows now he probably would not have accepted the job."

Although West Ham would not comment on the record, privately the club point to players that Grant was able to sign. The New Zealander Winston Reid was bought for £3m in August while Sullivan and Gold also sanctioned the signing of Pablo Barrera for £4m and Thomas Hitzlsperger arrived on a free transfer. In January Wayne Bridge and Robbie Keane were also signed, on loan from Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, with West Ham paying the majority of each player's sizeable salary.

Tzofit Grant, the manager's wife, told the paper: "Maybe there was a mistake on Avram's part to accept the job. There were so many people who were offered it but turned it down because they thought they wouldn't be able to manage. But Avram wanted to rise to the challenge. There are so many things that we can't talk about – so many things he had to deal with that people don't know about. He found no joy except only with the fans, players and his assistants."

For his part, Sullivan has informed the London Evening Standard: "We are amused by certain individuals saying they don't want the job when they haven't been considered for it." Sullivan refused to name those involved, but admits that he is confused by those in question who have moved to distance themselves from the role publically. "We've had approaches by some good candidates but we treat all applications as confidential."

It is not clear whether one of those approaches is from Kevin Keen but the first-team coach has revealed he would be interested in taking the manager's job at West Ham. Keen has been placed in temporary charge of the Hammers for their final game of the season at home to Sunderland but admits he would be interested in taking the job on a permanent basis following Avram Grant's sacking at the weekend. He told BBC Radio 5 Live: "I would love the opportunity to speak to the owners and (chief executive) Karren Brady and give my views about the future. Maybe in the future I will be given a opportunity to turn it around."

Keen, who played for West Ham for a decade between 1983 and 1993, believes the ingredients are there for a swift return to the Premier League, following the team's relegation to the Championship. "This is my club. People say claret and blue runs through your veins and that is very much me," he added. "I think we have got a superb bunch of young footballers coming through in the likes of James Tomkins, Junior Stanislas, Zavon Hines, Freddie Sears, Jack Collison and Jordan Spence. There is a real opportunity to go back to the days of pass and move and make sure people tackle like (former player and manager) Billy Bonds and want to run through brick walls for this football club." Yes, Keen did just invoke the hallowed name of Bonds; and in doing so proves he is 'someone who understands the culture of the club'. Like Paolo, it's hard to escape the feeling that this job is simply too big and too soon in a career trajectory. Reluctantly, he must dissolve back into the forest until we meet again somewhere down the line. Let's see who tomorrow brings.

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