On May 11th 2003, West Ham drew 2-2 with Birmingham City and despite achieving 42 points, a record for a relegated team, the Hammers went down.
Facing the exodus of future internationals like Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick and Glen Jonhson, the future looked bleak. However, eight years on, the Hammers face an even greater crisis. They are managerless, have an unsustainable level of debt, face a vastly improved level of competition in the Championship and have a bruised club image – that once stood so proud.
After becoming co-chariman with David Gold in January 2010, David Sullivan revealed West Ham’s debts were £110 million. To counter this, ambitiously, they took survival for granted in their seven-year plan, which included leading West Ham to Champions League qualification by 2017. Obviously, this was a lofty ambition but the owners did not prepare or sufficiently plan for West Ham being relegated this season – after just escaping relegation in 2010. With the likes of Scott Parker, Matthew Upson, Carlton Cole, Robert Green and Mark Noble on the playing staff, the owners’ belief was that yet again, West Ham would be too good to go down and that in the hands of an experienced manager like Avram Grant, little investment in the squad was needed.
The focus instead turned to eventually turning West Ham into London’s top team (as stated in the owners’ seven-year plan). The first step, again presuming relegation would not be an issue, was moving into the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. This is a matter of ego for Gold and Sullivan, who see their legacy being immortalised in moving into the stadium – despite it making very little business sense. With the aid of Newham Council, who will provide a £40 million loan, a £100 million redevelopment of the stadium will take place after the Olympics in 2012.
West Ham have one of the most boisterous and intimate atmospheres in England, with a hardcore group of fans so will they be able to sell out a 60,000 stadium – particularly if Premier League football is not on offer? Also, in leaving the running track between the pitch and stands, the distance between the seats and the pitch will range from 45 metres to 205 metres. Juventus’ Stadio delle Alpi has served as a warning as it had a running track up to when redevelopment began in 2009 and was synonymous for its poor atmosphere and fans’ restricted view of the pitch. Despite this, there are more crucial short-term problems to worry about.
For a club that models itself on its traditional values with its loyal fans and attractive football, West Ham have failed to avoid the dangerous trend of prematurely sacking managers. Four different managers have been in place since 2003 and while that does not seem out of the ordinary in the modern game, for West Ham up to 2001, managerial stability was a hallmark of the club. From 1901 right up to 2001, when Harry Redknapp departed, the average amount of time that a manager spent at West Ham was twelve and a half years. Just eight managers led the club through one hundred years yet today, West Ham are set to name their fifth manager in a decade.
David Sullivan has admitted that appointing Avram Grant was a mistake and that they “needed a manager who will get the best out of the squad and foster a strong team spirit.” After the unpopular ownerships of Terrence Brown (1989-2006) and Eggert Magnusson (2006-2008), the West Ham faithful believed Gold and Sullivan, as lifelong Hammers fans, would understand the pride and traditions of the club. The main problem under previous ownerships was poor relations with the manager: Brown let personal disagreements with Harry Redknapp get in the way of football matters and sacked him in 2001, while Magnusson’s board sold defenders Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney above Alan Curbishley’s head in 2008 – which led to Curbishley’s resignation.
Sadly, Gold and Sullivan have proved even more controversial. They constantly undermined last season’s manager, Gianfranco Zola. The Italian gave West Ham’s image a boost with his dignity and attractive football after the murkiness of the Carlos Tevez affair, where West Ham broke Premier League rules in signing him (as he was partly owned by a third party). However, Gold and Sullivan never publicly backed Zola and in January 2010, they announced the entire squad, apart from talisman Parker, was up for sale. They also bid for West Brom midfielder Graham Dorrans without Zola’s knowledge. In appointing Avram Grant in the summer of 2010, few lessons were learnt with Grant previously working under similar circumstances under Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. In January 2008, Branislav Ivanovic and possibly Nicolas Anelka were signings sanctioned by the club hierarchy rather than Grant.
A similar situation occurred at West Ham with Pablo Barrera and Winston Reid, two signings that amounted to £8 million, who were purchased on the back of decent World Cup performances. While having obvious potential, the necessity for instant success and the lack of confidence in their abilities by Grant meant that the pair made a combined total of just 19 appearances in all competitions this season. The owners made the same mistake yet again in January 2011 but this time, with unfit and expensive veterans. Robbie Keane and Wayne Bridge were loaned to the Hammers from Tottenham and Manchester City respectively. The super agent Barry Silkman, a close friend of Sullivan’s, brokered the deals, which led to West Ham paying both of the players’ wages in full. While Grant obviously played a part in the likes of Frédéric Piquionne coming to the club, the owners’ flawed transfer policy has overshadowed the successes of signings like Tomas Hitzlsperger and Demba Ba.
For the club to move forward, Gold and Sullivan need to take a back seat. Interference in club transfers was just one problem that they inflicted upon Grant. They constantly overshadowed West Ham’s preparations by criticising Grant’s team selections and by putting unnecessary pressure on the team ahead of crucial relegation ‘six pointers’ like the ‘save our season’ match against Wigan in November. While Gold and Sullivan did not hold back in sacking Zola in May 2010, they choked when it looked like at the very least, Grant would be sacked in January. Martin O’Neill was eventually put off by the owners’ public airing of their negotiations but in hindsight, after the success of Roy Hodgson’s brilliant performance at West Brom, a mid-season managerial change may have reinvigorated the team. Apart from a brilliant run of form in February, the Hammers always looked relegation-threatened.
West Ham need a manager who has experience at Championship level, can handle chaotic situations and understands what a special club West Ham really are. After all, from 1960s to the present day, the Hammers have produced an array of England internationals at the ‘Academy of Football’. The 1960s saw Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst while they produced Trevor Brooking and Frank Lampard Sr. in the 1970s. This continued into the 1980s with Alan Devonshire, Alvin Martin, Tony Cottee and Paul Ince and in this decade, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and Glen Johnson have gone on to win a combined 322 caps for England.
Manager wise, Chris Hughton certainly fits the bill as he won the Championship with Newcastle in 2010. He was prematurely sacked back in December, despite Newcastle looking like they would avoid relegation and grew up and played at West Ham. However, having been brutally treated by one interfering owner, Newcastle’s Mike Ashley, it remains to be seen whether Hughton would want to risk working in another hostile environment.
Added to this, to survive in one of the most competitive second divisions in world football, West Ham will need to follow the blueprint of recent promoted sides like Queens Park Rangers. While QPR have brilliant talents like Adel Taarabt and Alejandro Faurlín, the club also have players that have been in numerous promotion battles, yet also have Premier League experience such as Paddy Kenny, Shaun Derry, Tommy Smith and Heidar Helguson. With the 2011/2012 West Ham team likely to built around the likes of Junior Stanislas, Jordan Spence, Freddie Sears and Zavon Hines, bringing in Championship and promotion experience is going to be a necessity.
With the inevitable player exodus of internationals like Demba Ba, Robert Green, Scott Parker, Matthew Upson and Carlton Cole, West Ham will have to rebuild and regroup, just as they did with Alan Pardew in 2004, and with a perilous level of debt, promotion next season is a must.