It is a grim irony that the newspaper headlines have been consumed with the travails of three clubs who, at various points over the last two years or so, have been heralding brave new worlds of cash, star players and success. One of these clubs is just about to set out on a second odyssey, having forgotten with the sort of haste that would grab the attention of a goldfish the risks associated with leaving your club in the thrall of one individual or group with no great interest in the history, tradition or culture of your club. For now, they are blinded by the promise of billions and billions of pounds of someone else’s money. We’ve heard this somewhere before, though, haven’t we?
Alan Curbishley’s resignation from West Ham United was no great surprise. Relations between the manager and the board had broken down over the board’s decision to offload more players than the manager wanted to lose. Rewind two years, though, and there’s a cautionary tale for all football supporters. When Eggert Magnusson’s consortium took control of the club in November 2006, there was talk of them putting the sort of money into West Ham that could have them challenging for a place in the Champions League. They had, we were told, funded the transfers of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez to Upton Park. Bright times were ahead, they were told.
Of course, it didn’t work out like that. West Ham had already been stuttering and stumbling and, within a few weeks of them taking over, Alan Pardew had been replaced by Alan Curbishley. For much of the winter, West Ham’s relegation looked a foregone conclusion, but a late run turned things around, culminating in an extraordinary win against Manchester United on the last day of the season which sent Sheffield United down in their place. The two Argentinians left that summer (under murky circumstances from which West Ham’s reputation hasn’t fully recovered even now), and last season was one of mellow unfruitfulness for the club, settled comfortably in mid-table and threatening no-one at either the top or the bottom of the table. Behind the scenes, however, trouble was brewing. The credit crunch had hit the consortium behind the club’s take-over hard and, despite a solid start to this season, Curbishley quit on Tuesday after the sale of George McCartney to Sunderland.
To say that the rest of the week has been something of a disappointment for West Ham supporters would be something of an understatement. Slaven Bilic and Harry Redknapp appear to have already ruled themselves out of the running, and the only man to have openly thrown his hat into the ring is Paolo Di Canio. Now, Di Canio may still be a legend at Upton Park, but he is a fascist. He has “Dux” (Latin for “Duce” – Mussolini’s nickname) tattooed on his arm and has been happily photographed throwing fascist salutes at Lazio matches. Ultimately, any decision to hire him (and he’s the third favourite at the time of writing) would be a morally bankrupt one. We shall see. No matter what, though, having suffered the indignity of relegation from the Premier League five years ago, you’d perhaps expect West Ham to not get too wound up by hubris and try to merely enjoy a couple of seasons without some sort of drama. Apparently, however, they don’t like it that way.
At Newcastle United, Kevin Keegan’s inevitable resignation came yesterday. One of the more extraordinary revelations to come from it was that Newcastle are entitled to £2m compensation if he were to resign. He must have been drunk when he signed that. All of this has brought about a fairly predictable bout of outrage and self pity from Newcastle’s supporters, who are talking of mass protests at their next home match against Hull City next week. The truth of the matter is that, if Keegan was expecting full control of the club from top to bottom, he should have known more or less immediately that this wasn’t going to happen. The appointment of Dennis Wise in one of those strange, “Manager But Not Really The Manager” positions was proof of that. Still Newcastle supporters have learnt the hard way that the fiefdom of modern club ownership isn’t necessarily an ideal relationship. Mike Ashley might have been, nominally, “one of us”, but he has run his club like a basket case and made it a laughing stock. It’s difficult to see Newcastle being able to acquire a manager of the quality required to prevent meltdown and a subsequent battle against relegation.
Still, at least Newcastle’s supporters have been out and protesting, which puts them one up on the supporters of Manchester City, who have rolled over and allowed their tummies to be tickled in return for (what they presume will be) unlimited petro-dollars. The Abu Dhabi United Group have already more or less stated publically that they don’t really give a toss about City (you could probably tell that from their unfortunately chosen name) and, whilst City fans may or may not be able to laud it over much of the rest of the Premier League for a couple of seasons, the prognosis is not necessarily quite as positive. How, exactly, is this going to end well for them? One would have expected better from City fans, who had literally just got their fingers burnt by one plutocrat, but no. Another one comes in and they’re alright because they’ve got tons and tons of money. I used to like Manchester City. Their supporters were grumpy. They saw off Peter Swayles and they saw off Francis Lee. Now, though, they’re just as bad as all the rest. They’ve sold their consciences to become a major brand. They must be very proud.
Maybe this week has been the point at which I’ve lost touch with the Premier League. Maybe this is the turning point. The ridiculous scenes surrounding the transfer deadline, the idea that progessive football club ownership is to return to some sort of lords and serfs relationship (don’t think that your new owners are going to give a toss about your interests, Manchester City supporters, they don’t need to), and the idea that people other than the manager of the team are the best people to pick the players that play for that team. All we have to look forward to in the Premier League is another period of hyper-inflation and the increased likelihood that someone will go to the wall trying to keep up with the pace. Even more of a widening gap between the ultra-rich, the rich and the rest. And in the long term, as they seek to “protect their investments”, the real possibility of them pulling up the drawbridge and abandoning promotion and relegation altogether. And if you think that my final comment is pie in the sky, remember that it was Manchester City’s new chairman, Garry Cook, who advocated that ten team, NFL style, Premier League. This is the way we’re headed.