Sunday, 1 May 2011

An Umbrella For The Summer

Close by the front gate of the West Ham training ground stands a plum Rolls-Royce, writes Patrick Collins. The personalised numberplate declares it the property of David Gold, the club's co-owner. Gold is spotted through an office window, waving his arms and making a point. His website describes him as being 'blessed with a friendly, welcoming nature'. Current events may be testing that benevolence.

David Sullivan is Gold's co-owner, and a fellow lion of the adult entertainment industry. He has just given an interview in which he rates the team's chances of surviving in the Premier League at a mere '25 per cent'. He also takes a few swipes at footballers, some of whom he describes as 'spoilt'. He wonders about their commitment. 'How do you motivate millionaires?' demands the multi-millionaire. Self-awareness is not his strongest suit, but no matter. Like Gold, his patience is being tested.

In another part of the training establishment sits the manager. At a glance, Avram Grant seems oppressed by the pressures of agitated owners, non-performing players and the fact that his team are sitting snugly at the foot of the Premier League. Then you realise that his expression would be equally lugubrious if West Ham were top of the table with a Champions League final in prospect. He always looks like that.

On Sunday afternoon they play the Premier League’s nouveau riche, Manchester City, at Eastlands. There is no time to debate whether it is the crippling weight of expectation from ever-loyal fans or a definitive lack of quality that ties West Ham United to the bottom of the table, they are three points from safety with just four games remaining. Football writers’ footballer of the year Scott Parker and fellow midfield enforcer Mark Noble are injured, along with January signing Gary O’Neil, and Wayne Bridge, on loan from Eastlands, is ineligible to face his parent club so unwavering optimism is the only thing that keeps most chins up at the bottom three club.

Although it seems finally to be abandoning the manager with the permanent hang-dog expression. Form, reason and Sullivan's powers of prediction suggest that they might be in for a thumping. Grant's task is to appear upbeat. It is an emotion which does not come naturally to him. He starts to assess the opposition: "City have big players, they've spent so much money, it will be difficult to compete with them. Last week they had players who were not on the bench, or even in the squad, who could play in most other teams in the Premier League. I will be honest with you. If we played Manchester City 10 times we would not win seven but we would not lose all of them — this is how we need to think about football."

As clarion calls go, it has a less than convincing ring. Clearly he needs to find some motivational words for the millionaires in his dressing room. And, by a remarkable coincidence, David Sullivan is working along the same lines. He has been considering addressing the squad to alert them to the urgency of their situation. "I've been thinking about it, but I think the players might think it's a joke," he said. "I could go in there and give them a Churchill speech, but whether it's going to do any good, I don't know."

It seems an inspired notion: David Sullivan as Winston Churchill. A piece of type-casting if ever I saw it. I ask Grant if he thinks it might be helpful. "Helpful?" he says. "Yes, why not? Every speech by Churchill is welcome. I love Churchill's speeches." Indeed, but does he think Sullivan is in the Churchillian mould? "I like Mr Sullivan," he insists. "He is full of life, always. You can speak with him about everything."

Grant is anxious to stress the tranquillity which prevails in the upper reaches of Upton Park. Do the owners have a great knowledge of football? Do they give him advice? He nods, thoughtfully. "They told me to play 4-4-3 last game," he says. A smile breaks out. He is joking, I'm almost sure of it. But jokes do not come easily to him, and the pressure is genuine. He believes that West Ham need nine points for survival. Seven might be sufficient, but probably nine. If they are beaten in Manchester today, then they will need to win their remaining matches against Blackburn (at home), Wigan (away) and Sunderland (home). The task is not impossible, but it is less than likely.

Grant’s collection of loanees, youth-team products and relative unknowns have long been labelled the side ‘too good to go down’ but injuries have ravaged his side once again and even consulting with his players has not helped their plight. Misfiring forwards, contract rebels and the unsettling rumours regarding the 56 year-old’s job security that emanate from far too close to home, could have left the former-Portsmouth manager laying the blame with those whose opinions he so honestly respects.

At such times, his is a desperately lonely job. How widely does he consult? Does he discuss tactics with his players? "Of course," he says. "I believe the relationship with players cannot be like it was 20 years ago, when nobody spoke with anybody. For me it's very interesting to hear different opinions. But, at the end of the day, there is one man who has to take the decision, and there is one man you will come after and blame."

Grant’s open invitation to level all vitriol at him may be admirable, but should form stay true — and the team bottom at Christmas drops out of the top-flight — there might not be many players left around to share the burden anyway. Captain Matthew Upson is out of contract in the summer and, with the silence surrounding a possible extension to his stay deafening, he will surely escape the backlash when an alternative club seeks out his services. The handful of players that have been drafted in on loan will also depart but one may leave with a parting gift.

Victor Obinna has been lent to the relegation threatened side from the dizzying heights of Serie A and the Champions League courtesy of Inter Milan and it is those links to the San Siro that add a touch of personal incentive today. Roberto Mancini managed Obinna and City firebrand Mario Balotelli before the trio decamped to England and the unruly temperament of the £25 million striker could be one of the few weaknesses in the FA Cup finalists’ squad.

"Mario is a very good friend of mine," 24-year-old Obinna said. "When I was at Inter we would stay together. He is a very interesting lad and he does some funny things but I think he is a good kid. He should be given a little bit of time to adapt, yes sometimes he does some crazy things but he is spontaneous. When he does things he doesn’t think sometimes. I used to tell him off all the time. He used to say ‘I know brother, I know'." Despite providing a calming and authoritative figure to Balotelli in their early years, the Nigerian plans to agitate his friend for the sake of his current team-mates. "I won’t give Balotelli a chance, he knows that," Obinna added. "He’s knows I’m going to unsettle him. Before the game we will talk and after the game we will talk."

Obinna is on a season-long loan and is reluctant to discuss his future at the club. "I want to stay but let us be safe first ­before we talk," he said. "I love this club." His is not the only future shrouded in uncertainty. A flick through the tabloid back pages today suggests the club are braced for a summer exodus as up to 10 stars head for the Upton Park exit door. According to the People, Upson and Danny Gabbidon are both out of contract and will speak to the board about their next step, while Kieron Dyer will leave on a free transfer. Obinna, Robbie Keane and Wayne Bridge will all rejoin their parent clubs rather than make their loan moves permanent. Thomas Hitzlsperger signed a three-year deal last June on a free transfer – but life in the Championship was never in the brochure sold to him by owners David Gold and David Sullivan. Carlton Cole and reported Aston Villa target Robert Green are also set for crunch talks over their futures.

Most damaging of all, Scott Parker is set to leave West Ham on the cheap in June as Tottenham and Manchester City will lead the battle for his signature this summer. According to the Mirror, Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has been keen to sign Parker, 30, for the past year and is expected to lodge a bid of around £7million at the end of the season if the Hammers are relegated. That is half the amount the England midfielder was valued at earlier this season but with West Ham set for the drop, the club’s board are facing the reality of his value decreasing.

Although the 30-year-old midfielder has no get-out clause inserted into the four-year contract he signed last September a verbal agreement was reached that would allow him to leave the club if they failed to retain their top-flight status. Tottenham are reluctant to pay any more than £7m and cite Parker’s age and the fact there would be no sell-on fee once his time at White Hart Lane runs out. Spurs have failed with two previous bids to sign Parker and although they remain quietly confident they can secure his signature, Manchester City’s interest has weakened their position.

The People report Spurs are unlikely to offer Parker any greater financial incentive to move to White Hart Lane while City are prepared to treble his current £60,000 a week salary and look the more likely side to offer him Champions League football next season. However, the potential stumbling block is Parker’s reluctance to leave his mother in London following the recent untimely death of his father.

Through it all, Avram Grant talks about patience, about the West Ham 'project', about the conflict between needing immediate results and building for the future. "The club wants to win, but also it has a vision," he says. "It's best to buy an umbrella in the summer, not after you are wet." Time and again he pleads for patience. "Manchester City bought a lot of players, and they need patience. Chelsea bought a lot of players and haven't won the Champions League yet. I'm sure it will happen, but you need to do it step by step. You can't just push a button ... OK, we don't have money to spend and our squad could be better. But we have a squad that deserves to stay in the league."

He sounds like a man who is talking sense, but does not expect to be believed by those who control his destiny. When he managed Chelsea, his imminent demise was constantly predicted. In his present post, the predictions have been even stronger. At one stage, earlier in the season, even he seemed to accept that his time was running out. The uncertainty is always there. How does Grant live with it?

He gives a rambling, confusing, yet curiously touching answer. "This is my job," he says. "When you are a journalist, you know what you are facing. When you are an actress, like my wife, you know what you are facing. In every job as a manager, you must know that you will be facing a lot of rumours. But I have a commitment to the job, and not only because they pay me ... I really, really believe in it ... I figure that if we take the right steps, this will be a good club and people will enjoy watching it. I believe that."

Not quite Churchillian, perhaps, but he sounded sincere. Yet he knows that sincerity alone will not be sufficient, that those nine points are crucial to his continued employment, and that the Rolls-Royce by the front gate would be swiftly replaced by a taxi for Mr Grant. "It's not a normal business, football," he murmured. And he never spoke a truer word.

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