You’ve heard the phrase: “Another day, another Sun article telling us that David Gold and David Sullivan have emerged as firm favourites to take over West Ham”. But… what’s that? The Telegraph assures us that Tony Fernandes, “a committed, driven owner who has exciting plans for the club’s future, has emerged as clear favourite to take over West Ham”? And what’s this? The News of the World says “West Ham are set to be taken over by Intermarket Group”? They are “leading the race”? In that list, it was the Sun wot had the credibility. Just. Journalistic integrity can rarely have been more regularly compromised than by the West Ham United takeover saga, which has ended in its 94th year. The tale itself was markedly less soap operatic than its contemporaries; Fahim’s faffing around at Portsmouth throughout last summer; the ever-burgeoning list of parties “interested” in bidding for Newcastle United – with people who were either “only joking” or didn’t exist offering up more credibility than the supposedly ‘serious’ candidates such as… Freddie Shepherd…and the clown looking to sell.
West Ham had their candidates’ list, including in the Independent on Sunday’s far from finest hour, an Arabian businessman by the name of Ali Al-Faraj. But wealthy Arabs who definitely exist, oh yes, were not the point of West Ham’s situation. The former owners of the club became owners for purely financial reasons. CB (Claret and Blue) Holdings were freed of the need portray themselves as ‘custodians’ of the club, or respecters of its heritage or any of the old cods that has come from indeterminate parts of various potential and actual club owners’ anatomies in recent years. They were most often described by the financially literate as an “Icelandic asset management company.” Their shareholders, the largest being Straumur-Burdaras investment bank, had one purpose in mind, to get back the money they were owed by previous Hammers owner Bjorgolfur Gudmunsson when he became a high-profile casualty of Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008. One way was to run the football club, one of Gudmunsson’s more valuable surviving assets, sensibly. One way not to was to “invest in the playing squad”, as Gudmunsson and erstwhile colleague, Icelandic biscuit baron and FA official Eggert Magnusson did.
Magnusson, incidentally, revealed he was interested in returning (“Egg wants crack at West Ham” was the Sun’s inevitable headline on October 8th) – which suggested an inter-galactic lack of self-awareness. But by attempting to run West Ham as a “going concern” CB Holdings offended the sensibilities of huge numbers of fans, attracting accusations of not having the best interests of the club at heart. Of course, this was true. The “interests” they had “at heart” were their own financial ones. Straumur were 70% shareholders and there were five banks owed money too, including regular cast members of football financial tragedies, Lloyds and RBS, as well as South Africa’s Standard Bank, who had the rare distinction in 2009 of actually being paid back by Portsmouth. (“Where did all the transfer money go?” Well, £35m of it went to them). David Gold and David Sullivan didn’t appear to grasp this at first, to judge by their initial bid, details of which seemed all-too-readily available in the tabloid press, despite all interested parties signing a confidentiality agreement once their interest had been formalised.
Initially, Sullivan – the bid’s driving force – was put off by the size of the debt, particularly the size which was revealed ‘exclusively’ by the Mirror in early October. “I want Hammers for free” screamed the Sun misleadingly – not for the last time. “At a lot of clubs, debt exceeds value” Sullivan actually noted, more accurately. However, they were soon making a “take it or leave it” offer which, it was claimed, had to be accepted, or West Ham were down the swanny. In what was described by guess-which-paper as an “ingenious plan”, Sullivan said he’d invest money to “make the club profitable and healthy” but that the cash would go towards new players rather than old creditors and only if they gave him control and “left him to run the ship with his own people”, including Gold and, it now seems, Karren Brady. How this sat with the banks “interests” wasn’t immediately clear. Straumur, in particular, had their own debts to pay, and Sullivan’s ‘confident’ promises of future health and prosperity weren’t about to pay those bills.
A pattern, however, was emerging in the media coverage of the story with both the Sun and Mirror were proving staunch Sullivan-ites, the broadsheets less so. On December 8th, the Mirror told us Sullivan and Gold were “favourites to get control of Upton Park.” Three days later, the Independent’s report on the Sullivan bid wore the headline: “West Ham set to turn down rescue package.” And the Guardian soon chipped in with “Hurdles hamper Hammers bid for Gold and Sullivan”, with Matt Scott taking an especially sniffy attitude: “Listen to (Sullivan and Gold) and you would think they were guardian angels ready to rescue West Ham from certain relegation and financial ruin, with only nasty Straumur standing in the way,” he snorted, adding that their proposal “was set for rejection”. It was like a class war was being fought, with inverted snobbery the broadsheets’ weapon of choice. The Mirror’s James Nursery became Sullivan’s remorseless cheerleader during December, which made his series of “exclusives” seem like feeds from Sullivan, his way around any ‘confidentiality’ agreement, which apparently didn’t please Straumur – according to the broadsheets.
At least Nursery admitted to being a ‘cheerleader’, though, writing in his column: “I hope for West Ham’s sake they do end up in the hands of Sullivan and the Golds.” “I am no official publicist for the trio,” he added, the key word there being “official”. In the Telegraph, meanwhile, Jason Burt was less transparent, mixing impressive detail on West Ham’s situation with what looked like PR-puffery for the on-off bid of “Malaysian business magnate” Tony Fernandes. Sullivan tried to force the issue before Christmas by telling Straumur that they had until January 7th to accept his proposals, or else… Straumur’s response appeared not unadjacent to “OK, then, bye” – which overlooked the transfer window-based logic of the ultimatum. But the Mirror still ushered in the New Year with: “Gold and Sullivan on brink of £50m takeover”. The broadsheets did little to dispel the sense that they’d rather have anyone take over West Ham than these classless oiks, even re-hashing an old quote from Crystal Palace chairman to illustrate Sullivan and Gold’s alleged over-reliance on their East London roots, although, it was funny: “If I see another David Gold interview on the poor East End Jewish boy done good I’ll impale myself on one of his dildos.” And read no significance into the fact that I retrieved this quote having googled “Simon Jordan dildo”.
The appearance of three other bidders were almost a godsend to them – the afore-mentioned Fernandes accompanied “financial analysts” InterMarket Group, and even an “unidentified North American investor” who suddenly emerged as “Straumur’s preferred bidder” (and who just as quickly disappeared), to “emerge as favourites” in the Telegraph, Guardian et al. The emergence of an Italian with desirable experience of owning a club of West Ham’s size and ambition, Cagliari president Massimo Cellino, was a challenge that the tabloids didn’t shirk. While the broadsheets attempted to explain the genuine complexities of Cellino’s brushes with Italian and European law at the turn of the century, the Sun went straight in with what could cynically have been considered a “spoiler” article. Alas, the headline branding Cellino a “jailed fraudster” was inaccurate and defamatory on, well, two counts, and the article disappeared quicker than an unidentified North American investor. Its replacement was a non-defamatory but equally misleading piece “Zola pal to save the Hammers,” which claimed Hammers Sardinian boss Gianfranco Zola, himself a Cagliari old boy, had “helped bring Cellino to the table” and “the pair have remained close friends” with Cellino making “no secret of his admiration” for Zola. Well, it was a secret to Zola.
A decision on West Ham’s new owner had been “expected next week” for about a month, and the media’s confusion lasted to the end. Fernandes emerged as a clear favourite in the Telegraph just last Wednesday and “would be a popular owner” not least because he supported Zola, the nicest man in football since Sir Bobby Robson’s sad passing, despite Zola’s, whisper it, mediocre management record. Cellino was “99.98%” certain to win, even though the Premier League were/are clueless as to whether its “Fit and Proper Persons” regulations could deal with his legal history. And InterMarket, despite the sad passing of bid frontman “Wall Street mogul” Jim Bowe, and their allergy to providing proof of funds, still “battled for control” as the snow thawed last week. But the Sun and, especially, the Mirror have seen their boys come through. Sullivan and Gold had the proverbial “money on the table” from their sale of Birmingham and that proved the key. They can now pump £20m worth of transfer funds into the club – after Sullivan claimed at a press conference that the club’s debt is around £110m at present) and hire Mark Hughes as manager (Mirror) while confirming that Zola is staying (Telegraph). The media’s confusion has lasted beyond the end. It looks, then, as if everybody’s happy. The tabloids have got one over on their ‘superior’ broadsheet rivals. David Gold gets to sit on FA committees again now that, presumably, he’s a Premier League chairman again. The banks will get their money back (and who can’t rejoice at that news?) and, most importantly, West ham fans can relax, comforted by Sullivan and Gold’s record in Premier League relegation battles with Birmingham City. Ah.