It’s been an interesting few years when you look at the financial side, and the stewardship of West Ham United. When the club were last relegated in 2003, chairman Terence Brown played a canny hand when dealing with players exiting the club. Unlike other relegated clubs in previous seasons, who proclaimed a firesale the moment their fates had been sealed, and followed it up with almost weekly media proclamations that they had to sell players, thus reducing the value of said players, Brown made it clear: West Ham did not need to sell. Brown even went as far as turning down a transfer request from Jermain Defoe, submitted less than 24 hours after the Hammers had been relegated. Such a policy, coupled with the sales of Joe Cole and Glen Johnson to Chelsea, saw the club maximise their transfer income, and enabled them to compete in the newly renamed Championship. This of course led to world class pundit Martin Samuel claiming that Brown was the Worst Chairman in the World (a claim that Samuel continues to make to this day). The reality is, that Brown wasn’t even the worst Chairman that West Ham have had in the Twenty-First Century.
It took two attempts at the Play-Offs for West Ham to regain their top flight status, and that’s where the fun began. 2006 saw Kia Joorabchian arrive on the scene with a proposed takeover that the media saw as giving the Hammers the same sort of money as Chelsea, and seeing West Ham as being the side to break the quadropoly of the Big Four. The opening salvo in this exchange appeared to be the arrivals of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez (a move which almost saw West Ham deducted points and subsequently relegated over the way in which the players had been registered by the club). Joorabchian’s interest in the club eventually diminished, as no agreement could be made over the valuation of the club, and Brown sold the club to two Icelandic businessmen. Biscuit magnate Eggert Magnusson and Landsbanki bank co-owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson. Magnusson was the initial public face, and chairman of the club, but had never owned more than 10% of the club, and eventually sold up to Gudmundsson, who became Chairman in the process, just in time for the Icelandic bank crisis to affect the world’s economy. Landsbanki went into receivership, and Gudmundsson needed to sell, and the buyers were lifelong West Ham fans and former Birmingham City owners, David Sullivan and David Gold. This was old ground for Sullivan and Gold. After all, when they arrived at Birmingham City, the club was in administration, because the previous owners, the Kumar Brothers had found their businesses end up in receivership, mainly down to the collapse of the Pakistani bank BCCI in 1991.
The big difference between the two clubs was that Birmingham City were in administration, when Gold and Sullivan arrived, West Ham United were not. However, the new owners made it clear that the club had large debts and high wages, and the two combined weren’t sustainable in the owners eyes, and there was only one way to solve the problem – the players would have to take wage cuts at the end of the season, whether the club survived the ongoing relegation battle or not. Such a claim (coming just a day after Sullivan claimed that the club were prepared to spend £100k per week on the sort of striker guaranteed to score them the goals to get the club into midtable) was clearly designed at making the players look overpaid and not worth the money they were earning, but such a claim was always going to be both hollow, and affect morale amongst the players. After all, being told that wage cuts are coming never helped anybody work harder, and besides, thanks to the power-struggle between the PFA and the FA in the early 1960s (when players had no rights at all), offering a player a contract with lower pay than he is already on, enables him to walk away on a free transfer, with his contract paid up in full. Since that time, Sullivan has made a number of comments which seem at best divisive, and his most recent proclaimation, about not interfering in the team affairs of new manager Avram Grant: “We won’t be interfering with Avram. Of the next 20 players we sign, 18 will be his choice. Maybe the 19th will be a player I like. I’ve been in football for almost 20 years now and I’m not a complete mug when it comes to picking a player. I think that’s reasonable. The 20th will perhaps be a player Avram wants but I will veto. But having said all that, if Avram was still set on a player, he would probably veto my veto.”
And it is with that in the background, that we need to look at the Hammers’ chances this season. Avram Grant replaces the popular, but ineffective Gianfranco Zola as manager, and Grant’s managerial career in England is a little mixed to say the least. Replacing Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, he was allowed to add two players to the squad, Nicolas Anelka and Branislav Ivanovic, both of whom have become integral members of the squad, but neither’s impact under Grant’s reign was positive, and it was only under subsequent managers that either have come close to justifying the outlay. Grant’s next managerial tenure was last season at Portsmouth, and let’s be honest it would be unfair to judge anyone under those circumstances, (even the FA Cup run was enhanced by the freshness of those first teamers unable to play in the League with appearance bonuses due to their former clubs). In that respect, predicting Avram Grant’s tenure at West Ham based on his history is impossible. Even predicting the style of play (tedious and defensive when in charge of the Israeli national side, more adventurous at Chelsea and whatever he could at Portsmouth) is difficult. Grant has always won over the fans, so the type of passing style favoured by his predecessors and the Upton Park faithful is most likely.
On the signings front, things don’t look too great. We all know what Frederic Piquionne can (or indeed can’t) do, from his year at Fratton Park, Thomas Hitzlsperger showed great promise for Aston Villa almost a decade ago, but hasn’t set the world alight since, Winston Reid faces a huge step up, even bearing in mind his World Cup experience for New Zealand, and Pablo Barrera (like Javier Hernandez at Manchester United and Giovani Dos Santos at Spurs), will be aiming to prove that Mexican players can settle into English football. However, Tal Ben Haim has worked a lot for Grant, and no-one knows how to utilise him better, and the squad he has inherited is a good one, and a relatively young one – after all, the complaint last season was that Zola struggled to get the best out of his resources, Grant should have no such trouble with all his experience. If Luis Boa Morte and Kieron Dyer can get – and stay – fit, Grant has effectively another two signings under his belt, and more importantly, West Ham have lost none of their main players from last season. As seasons go, this one is as unpredictable as they get, and while I don’t see the Hammers setting the world alight, 2010-2011 should be a lot more comfortable. As long as the owners don’t undermine the players or the manager, that is.
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