As West Ham United’s relegation from the Premier League was confirmed this afternoon with a match still to spare, supporters of the club may well be left wondering what the future holds for their club. After a chaotic season, punctuated by the decision to award the post-games use of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford to them, Avram Grant was reportedly sacked in the tunnel after this afternoon’s defeat at Wigan Athletic. As such, the next managerial appointment that the club makes could well turn out to be one of the most important in the entire history of West Ham United, and the question of whether Messrs Sullivan, Gold and Brady can be relied upon to make the right decision is on that is far from certain.
There is little for West Ham supporters seeking solace this evening to clutch at. The club is believed to be £80m in debt, with revenues certain to decline drastically as a result of relegation from the Premier League. On top of that, a cursory glance at the top of this year’s Championship table indicates that this is a division that is easier to fall into than to get out of. None of the teams relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season could manage as much as a place in the play-offs at the end of this season and the top end of the table is likely to be congested again at the end of next year as well. Karren Brady has been quoted as saying that, “Whatever division we are in, David Sullivan and David Gold have guaranteed that the club will meet all its financial commitments”, but the reality of the club’s position is that there is very little for the club’s supporters to feel especially optimistic about this evening.
If the owners of the club wished to give the impression that they are firmly in control of its destiny, they perhaps could have done better than to sack Avram Grant in the tunnel after their defeat at Wigan Athletic this afternoon. It seems unlikely that Grant will earn a great deal of sympathy from the supporters of the club. His time in charge has, after all, been little short of disastrous. However, the extraordinary haste with which Grant has been fired may be interpreted as the behaviour of a board that is still inclined to make decisions with its heart rather than its head at a time when the one thing that West Ham United needs at this precise moment in time is a steady hand on the tiller and who may have been more concerned with deflecting criticism of themselves ahead of a home match next weekend that now seems likely to resemble a post-mortem.
None of this, however, should be mistaken for support for Grant. He has always come across as a likeable enough man but, although, in what feels like an episode from a parallel universe, only three years ago he was one penalty kick away from being a Champions League-winning manager, his post-Chelsea career has been something of a train wreck. His time at Portsmouth was a train wreck, but he did at least manage to get them to an FA Cup final as they tumbled from the Premier League and it is plausible to say that Portsmouth were beyond help regardless of who was managing the team due to the chronic mismanagement that ended with them in becoming the first Premier League club to be forced into administration.
This season, however, there have been no such excuses, and the shortcomings of the season itself have been evident from the beginning to the end of the season. In January, it was rumoured that Martin O’Neill was to take over from Grant as the manager of the club, but that Grant kept his job when the deal to bring him to the club fell through. Why, it might reasonably be ask, should this have been the case? If Grant’s shortcomings were evident to the extent that the club was set to replace him in January, why was he allowed to stay in his job until the end of the season? None of this is to suggest that it is necessarily right for a club to abandon its manager seven months into his tenure, but if he was not considered to be up to the task, then why was the falling-through of the O’Neill talks enough to keep him in his job?
If Brady, Gold and Brady think that sacking Grant will absolve them from the ire of the crowd at next week’s final match of the season, they could be barking up the wrong tree. It’s difficult to resist the temptation that Grant was a symptom rather than a cause of the problems at West Ham United this season, and the owners, who have hardly been shy of the spotlight in the past and, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say, would have been quite happy to enjoy any plaudits and praise that might have come had the team been successful this season, will have to put up with it, presuming they choose to attend. This is the cost of the responsibility that they assumed when taking control of the club.
Blaming Grant is the easy option, but West Ham United have been in decline for a couple of years now. They ended last season thirty-five points – an amount that would have seen them relegated this season as well. Whether the decision to sack Gianfranco Zola at that time was a wise one is open to question but, while hindsight has twenty/twenty vision, there can be little question that this season could not have gone much worse for them on the pitch. The right choice of new manager could return the club to the Premier League – Newcastle United were transformed from a chaotic rag-tag of under-achievers to champions at a canter by Chris Hughton two years ago, and West Ham’s supporters may be hoping that he could be enticed to try the same alchemy on their team this summer – but, for now, West Ham United’s future prosperity hangs in the balance. Whether the current owners are the right people to make the difficult decisions that lay ahead, however, is a question that may not be answered until it’s too late for any alternatives to their “vision”.
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