No one who watched Manchester City clinch their first Premiership title so dramatically in the dying minutes of last season as they came from behind to beat QPR in injury time will ever forget it
That’s what they say, anyway. I didn’t see it myself. While the rest of the footballing world held its breath in front of the telly I was enjoying the Brighton sunshine in a bar by the beach with my wife, drinking rather too much San Miguel out of plastic glasses and contemplating West Ham’s chances in the play-offs.
But when I saw the result through blurry eyes some hours later I was pleased for the City fans. Like a lot of people around the country I’ve always rather liked the boys in light blue. They do tend to overdo the “real Manchester” bit, but they are not United. Neither are they Chelsea, which is why most supporters who were not directly linked with any of the contenders (or pretenders) in the title race were happy enough to see them lift the trophy. Of course, there was a certain amount of envy as well. Up and down the country you could practically hear fans thinking the same thing; why can’t a billionaire buy our club and transform us from a bunch of no-hopers into title contenders? prayers had been answered. But as we know now of course, unlike Mum, we shouldn’t have gone anywhere near Iceland.
Many people still think of Eggy as the owner, but I suspect that’s partly because Eggert Magnússon is a damn sight easier to pronounce than Björgólfur Guðmundsson, who actually put his hand in his pocket towards the end of 2006. He stumped up £85m for the club ¬– small change to a man who was one of the richest geezers on the planet (although, coming as he did from Iceland, that should probably be “geyser”).
What a strange period in our history the aftermath of the takeover turned out to be. On the pitch, we appeared to heading towards stability. Guðmundsson’s first term in charge ended with the Great Escape at Old Trafford of course, but after that it promised to be onwards and upwards. The following year we happily settled for mid-table security under Alan Curbishley, knowing it was only a matter of time before those Icelandic billions had us challenging for a Champions League place.
In March of the 2007-08 season, as we closed in on the serenity of a tenth place finish under Curbs, our owner was number 1,014 on the list of the world’s wealthiest people compiled by Forbes magazine, which takes an interest in such matters. It reckoned he was worth $1.1 billion. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for a start, at the beginning of the following season our sponsors, XL Airlines, went bust. Now I know this probably won’t come as a total surprise, but our sponsors and our owner were not exactly unknown to one another. In fact Guðmundsson had provided most of the money to finance XL’s buyout from its parent company, which was also part of the magnate’s financial empire. In all, it was estimated the collapse cost our billionaire “saviour” £200m.
But worse was to follow as the Icelandic economy went up in more smoke than you get from one of its volcanoes, taking with it our dreams of trips to the Bernabeu and San Siro in search of European glory. About this time, Forbes revalued Guðmundsson’s net worth slightly … to $0. When we finally parted company he had debts of almost £500 million and was declared bankrupt shortly afterwards. Be fair, that’s a spectacular decline, even by West Ham’s standards.
Perhaps we were just unlucky. Some billionaires actually manage to hang on to their money long enough to make a significant difference to the fortunes of the club in which they invest. Roman Abramovich has bought the Champions League for Chelski, and Sheikh Mansour’s petro-dollars have brightened up Man City’s trophy cabinet no end over the past couple of years. But, and I ask this in all seriousness, does this kind of success give the supporters a lasting sense of satisfaction?
It certainly changes their levels of expectation. There was a time when Man City fans were surprised to start a new season in the same division as they’d finished the old one. Now they know they are going to finish in the top four ¬– but they’ll suffer the same agonies of disappointment as their Manchester neighbours if they don’t actually win the Prem. Success is like a drug – the more you have, the more you need. And if the supply suddenly dries up, the withdrawal symptoms can be excrutiating. When Abramovich finally tires of his west London plaything and turns his attention to something closer to his heart – the 2018 World Cup in Russia, for example – the pain of the cold turkey at Stamford Bridge will result in screams far louder than anything the glory-hunting fans have ever produced in support of their team.
But the real problem with being taken over by a billionaire is that they want an instant return on their investment, and to get it they will happily rip the soul out of your club. Let’s face it, you don’t support a team like ours because of the glittering prizes. It’s been a long time since a West Ham captain hoisted aloft a significant trophy (the piece of crap they give you winning the play-off final doesn’t count – that game is about promotion, not silverware). And I’m not expecting to win anything any time soon, particularly with a manager who sees cup competitions as nothing more than an annoying distraction from surviving in the Premiership.
I have no doubt that Fat Sam will agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, and I guess I would too if my job depended entirely on results. But I’m not a manager who, like players, come and go. I’m a supporter, and I’m going to be following West Ham until the day I am finally called to the celestial Bobby Moore Stand, where the angels are dressed in claret and blue and you never have to queue for a beer at half-time.
Winning is great, but there’s so much more to it than that. Long after results have been forgotten, we remember something that goes much deeper, whether we’ve won or lost. Take the 1990 semifinal at Villa Park, for example. Forest hammered us 4-0, yet every West Ham fan who was there would say it was one of the greatest days in our history. Give us effort, determination, skill, a pride in the badge, an understanding on the part of the players that wearing the claret and blue really matters, and we go home wanting more.
For me, it’s even more enjoyable when the memories are down to home-grown players, rather than expensive imports. Against Palace last season, with Kevin Nolan suspended, there was a passing movement involving Tomkins, Collison and Noble that prompted my son to purr to no one in particular: “Tony Carr, take a bow.” I barely remember the score, but that bit of midfield action with live with me a long time.