The last few days haven’t been entirely happy ones for West Ham United. Their win against Birmingham City last week lifted them out of the relegation places, but they remain just one point above the drop zone and earned themselves a lot of bad publicity from the decision to ask the entire playing staff of the club to take a twenty-five per cent pay cut this summer, a decision that was greeted with fury by manager Gianfranco Zola andwith derision in the press. What, one might wonder, were the club’s new owners doing during their period of due diligence? If West Ham United are really set for, as new co-owner David Sullivan said himself, “Armageddon if we go down”, it may be a worthwhile question to ask what compelled him to get involved in the first place.
The financial problems at Upton Park are well documented, with the club’s debt believed to be approximately £110m at present. This is not a figure that will be helped by the new owners being put in a situation in which they had to settle a contructive dismissal claim brought by former manager Alan Curbishley. The case shines a light on the madness that was going on behind the scenes at the club under its previous ownership. At first reading, Curbishley’s claim seemed almost absurd – he resigned after Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney were sold without his blessing. Under anything like normal circumstances, this would be no grounds for a constructive dismissal case. However, such was the level of institutional incompetence at West Ham United at the time that it was a clause in Curbishley’s contract that he had the final say over players being sold.
It is worth taking a moment to consider the implications of this. The financial affairs of a football club are not usually the domain of the manager. His job is to manage the team, and he will be given a budget to do this job. However, sometimes the needs of the business will clash with the needs of the team. However, the needs of the club may be a long term issue, and to make it a clause of the manager of the team that such big part of the budget on so many levels has, effectively, a team manager with a sign-off over it seems extraordinary. It is not the fault of David Sullivan and David Gold that the owners of the club at that time were this short-sighted, and this may be the reason why they were so quick to settle after the Premier League’s arbitration panel found in Curbishley’s favour in November 2009.
On their second potential brush with the law, it seems similarly unlikely that West Ham United will have any luck. West Ham United plan to sue the Football Association and/or Chelsea, along with former striker Dean Ashton, over the tackle by Shaun Wright-Philips during an England training session that ended Ashton’s career. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that either party will have much of a case against Chelsea. There is a process by which legal liability for a player is signed over to the national FA when they are on international duty. Sueing someone’s employers over something that they did during their spare time wouldn’t seem to have any legal merit, but it is West Ham’s choice if they wish to press ahead with a civil claim. They may be seeking to pressurise Chelsea into settling out of court. It’s impossible to say.
It is perfectly possible to say, however, that they may be on stronger ground if they were to launch a claim against the Football Association. FIFA’s statutes prevent civil or political intervention in football matters, but a West Ham United claim against the FA wouldn’t be viewed exactly as that, as it is a commercial matter rather than a sporting one. After the Chilean club Rangers looked to taking a three point deduction that resulted in their relegation to court to get it over-turned, FIFA gave the Chilean FA seventy-two hours for the dispute to be resolved or face their national team being expelled from the World Cup. It would be surprising this claim brought by an English club against its national Football Association led to similarly swift action by the game’s rulers.
Finally, as if those two matters weren’t enough, there is the small issue of the Olympic Stadium. Sullivan had stated quite publically that he wants the club to move there after the 2012 London games, but it isn’t really his decision. His public outburst on the subject roused some life into the Olympics Minister – apparently this position exists – Tessa Jowell, who stated that part of the deal by which London won the right to hold the games was the basis of a legacy for all sports. The implication was clear – it’s not West Ham’s decision whether they get to use the Olympic Stadium or not. The promises made were made, and they will not easily be broken, even if Jowell isn’t in government – as seems likely – by 2012, and this is without taking into account the fact that the Olympic Stadium isn’t designed for football in the first place and may well be an extremely unsatisfactory venue for watching football in.
Some may point out that the City of Manchester Stadium was converted from an athletics stadium for Manchester City to use, but this was pre-planned and part of the design. Any changes made to the Olympic Stadium will propbably have to be made after the Olympic Games and certainly the contruction of the stadium. Sebastian Coe (who will, ultimately, be the chairman of the company charged with the running of the stadium) has, in any case, repeatedly stated that athletics will remain the core business of the stadium after the games. West Ham could have done some behind the scenes wheeler-dealing, greasing palms and stating their case cogently about how their use of the stadium after the games could give it a sustainable future, but Sullivan’s public statements seem to have done little more than irritate the people (not all of whom will be gone after the general election) that will be making the decisions.
Of course, there is still a good chance that West Ham United will be offered the Olympic Stadium, when the games have moved on and the question of the long-term wellbeing of the stadium becomes a fiscal one. They may win a case against Chelsea and/or the Football Association. They may have got the deal of the century in paying off Curbishley now rather than taking him to court. They may be relegated from the Premier League this season, but they may not be. So many ifs and so many buts. The best case scenario for West Ham supporters would be playing in an Olympic Stadium converted for football in the Premier League in 2012 with the clubs debt having been paid down to reasonable levels. The worst case scenario would see them moving into a white elephant, having been relegated, unable to get back up and teetering on the brink because of a £100m+ debt. Given that the latter of these isn’t much less likely than the former, a little more circumspection on the part of the new owners of West Ham United may be the most prudent course of action for the time being. Whether they are capable of this, however, is a different matter altogether.