‘The consequences of failure would be simply catastrophic’

West Ham are facing a crisis, but unlike the bond scheme, Carlos Tevez saga or our previous relegations there doesn’t look to be a simple way out of this mess

Angry? Embarrassed? Despondent? Or simply baffled by what is happening at West Ham United?

Halfway through the second season at our new home it is crystal clear the club is a mess. Rightly, supporters are asking questions.

Who is responsible? Can the problems be easily fixed? Are we in the midst of a genuine crisis?

So many questions – but, worryingly, precious little in the way of answers from the people who were once so sure they knew what was best for everyone who bleeds claret and blue.

We have seen dark days before, of course. After an unbroken spell of 20 years in the top flight, West Ham were relegated in 1978.

We fought our way back from that, even winning the FA Cup as a second division side.

We’ve had to endure the ignominy of relegation a further four times since – and always managed to find the return ticket tucked away in an inside pocket.

Off the field, there has been no shortage of mishaps either. In 1971 West Ham were a laughing stock after it emerged that four players – not least the great Bobby Moore – had been drinking in a Blackpool nightclub on the eve of a third round FA Cup tie which saw us get mullered by our lower-league opposition.

An ill-fated bond scheme, in which supporters were asked to part with the best part of £1,000 just so they could buy a season ticket, cast a dark shadow over the 1991-92 season – sparking crowd unrest, organised protests and, ultimately, relegation.

There was the dishonour of the Tevez and Mascherano saga, which resulted in West Ham having to hang its head in shame as we were shown to have wilfully broken perfectly reasonable Premier League transfer rules.

And, most seriously of all, there was the prospect of the Hammers going bust as a direct result of mismanagement by an Icelandic consortium which should never have been allowed to run a flag up the mast, never mind run a multi-million pound football club.

These were tough times. And we survived them. The concern, which seems to be growing, is that what we are going through now is somehow different to the readily indentifiable problems of the past.

This is more complex, with a host of issues piling in on one another. And if we don’t get it right, the consequences could be catastrophic.

When things are going badly the instinctive reaction at any club is to fire the manager and get a new one.

True to form, that’s what we’ve done. It’s fair to say the appointment of David Moyes wasn’t universally popular with West Ham supporters.

Normally, fans give it a while before they turn on the new guy. But these days we do things rather differently.

People were signing “Moyes out” petitions even before he was officially “in”.

He now has the distinction of becoming the club’s most unpopular manager before he’d actually taken the job.

He’s certainly got a monumental task on his hands. If anyone was in any doubt about that, the humiliation at Goodison Park should have dispelled any lingering belief that we are some sort of sleeping giant.

The squad he has inherited is unfit, unbalanced and unconvincing. Slaven Bilic and the backroom staff he recruited are largely to blame for that. But the players themselves have to take their fair share of responsibility for the poor results and dismal performances.

There really is no excuse for being the team that, in a statistical league of shame, covers the least amount of ground over the course of a game and concedes the most goals in the dying minutes.

That’s simply a matter of fitness and commitment. When you earn more money in a week than most people do in a year, the least you can do is get in shape.

If Moyes can re-invigorate his players we have to hope he encourages them to show more attacking intent and flair than they did under Bilic at the London Stadium.

It’s hard to play high-tempo football if the lungs and the legs aren’t up to it, but frustrated supporters have had enough of endless square passes that go nowhere until the keeper is forced to boot it long in the hope that someone gets a flick on to a team-mate, who probably wasn’t busting a gut to collect it anyway.

The passionate response to a spirited, if clumsy, performance against Leicester in the new manager’s first home game in charge demonstrated just how much we want to see the ball going forward, not backwards.

Yes, the new manager will have a chance to bring in some fresh faces in January.

But it’s no secret that it is notoriously difficult to recruit the right players in the mid-season window – particularly if you are languishing near the foot of the table.

And for Moyes there is the added complication that owner David Sullivan has anointed himself as the Director of Football, with overall responsibility for transfer policy.

The arrogance of that is breathtaking. More importantly, many of his decisions have been deeply flawed.

It is widely accepted that Joe Hart was a Sullivan pick. Many years ago John Lennon was asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, and famously replied that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.

It’s debatable whether or not England’s No 1 is the best goalkeeper at West Ham. Many of the players who came in before the start of the inaugural season at the London Stadium have gone already.

And there’d be few tears shed if some of the latest intake were to be shown the door.

Let’s just hope Marko Arnautovic doesn’t have to hitchhike to his next club: his thumb wouldn’t be up to it.

Bilic, we were told, had identified William Carvalho as the man to shore up his creaking midfield, but Mr Sullivan had other ideas.

The folly of that veto was there for all to see as Liverpool tore us apart in Slav’s last game at the helm.

Moyes will undoubtedly be the fall guy if we do get relegated – but to pin the blame solely on him would be unfair. The problems are not of his making. What’s more, they are deep-seated and he may not get the time, money and support from the board that’s required to fix them.

The truth is, the owners should have acted sooner than they did. If Mr Sullivan knows enough about football to mastermind the club’s transfer dealings he should have been able to spot what was in plain sight for the rest of us last season: sterile tactics,

The truth is, the owners should have acted sooner than they did. If Mr Sullivan knows enough about football to mastermind the club’s transfer dealings he should have been able to spot what was in plain sight for the rest of us last season: sterile tactics, glaring deficiencies in key positions, a lack of pace and a reluctance to take responsibility when the going got tough – which it frequently did.

glaring deficiencies in key positions, a lack of pace and a reluctance to take responsibility when the going got tough – which it frequently did.

Relegation is a terrifying prospect for the owners – their entire business plan, complete with marketing, branding and the rest of the corporate mumbo-jumbo that gets spouted in boardrooms up and down the country, is based on being a top-flight side.

It’s going to be tricky selling West Ham shirts to kids in Taiwan if the club is in the Championship.

And the drop in TV revenue will leave a massive hole in the coffers. Moyes’ remit will, obviously, have been to keep us up at all costs.

Let’s hope he succeeds – but don’t hold your breath in the hope of a fullscale tilt at the FA Cup in the second half of the season. An early exit could well be one of the “costs”.

For supporters, though, there are worse things in life than relegation (whisper it quietly, but I’ve generally enjoyed chasing promotion more than trying to avoid going down).

Losing our soul is a far more worrying prospect than losing our Premier League status. It is often said that Mr Sullivan, assisted by his partner David Gold and their boardroom enforcer Karren Brady, saved the club from extinction following the carnage bequeathed to us by Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his mate Eggy.

This rather assumes that no one else would have been prepared to buy a club with the reputation and potential of ours, and opinion is divided on that. What we do know, because they have said so, is that the current owners acquired the club with the clear intention of selling the Boleyn Ground and moving to Stratford.

The problems of the move have been well documented, and there’s no need to rake over them again here. But leaving Upton Park has been a major wake-up call for supporters who believed that, as a club, we were somehow different to the rest.

This sense of our roots and our history and our heritage was what made supporting West Ham special: to use the marketing-speak so beloved by our very own Lady Brady it was our USP – “unique selling point”.

At the Boleyn Ground, which despite major development over the years retained its basic old-fashioned feel, supporters could kid themselves that the unwelcome modern era of money-means-all was for other people, not us.

Now, in our new, bright, shiny, plastic stadium there is no hiding from the fact that we have been catapulted into the commercial age and we are in serious danger of becoming just another small fish trying to survive in a murky pond dominated by a few big sharks.

And there will probably be a “football tourist” wearing a half-and-half scarf sitting next to you while you try to digest this unpleasant fact. The move has been deeply divisive for supporters. The impression many of us have had since leaving E13 is that the owners are more interested in promoting the stadium than running the club properly.

True or not, it is them rather than Moyes, the players, or even Bilic, who must carry the can for the shambolic state in which we now find ourselves. They are the custodians, and the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens at West Ham is theirs. ‘Sack the board,’ is a chant from disgruntled fans that has been heard more than once lately.

Well, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, foxes don’t march in support of the Country Alliance and bosses don’t generally issue themselves with P45s. Like it or not, we are stuck with the present regime for a while longer yet.

There are some cynics who believe Messrs Sullivan and Gold only bought the club because they knew moving to the new stadium would allow them to sell at a huge profit some years down the line.

It’s hard to see them selling while they would still be liable for a big windfall tax – especially when they are earning 6 per cent interest on the money that they are lending to the club they own in the form of shareholder loans – but it is inevitable that the For Sale signs will go up eventually

And that is how they can prove to the doubters (me included) that they really have had the interests of the club at heart all along. If the biggest decision the club has taken in more than 100 years really was about long-term survival rather than simply making a lorry-load of money for a few wealthy individuals, now is the time for the owners to start consulting with supporters about how we could one day take control of the institution we all love.

Instead of selling to the likes of Red Bull, or a billionaire businessman who sees our club as nothing more than a cash cow, they could sell it to us, the fans, using a model that underpins German football.

In the Bundesliga, clubs (with the historical exceptions of Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg) are required to operate as member-controlled associations rather than commercial companies using the so-called 50+1 rule which ensures supporters retain control and decisions are made by their elected representatives.

Private business is still able to invest, but is prevented from dictating how the club is run. I, for one, feel the essential spirit of West Ham would be safer in the hands of its devoted followers than in those of an American tycoon or a Russian oligarch.

Oh, and if you think this supporter-ownership malarkey is merely pie-in-the-sky nonsense, or some kind of crazy German obsession with control and regulations, there are a number of other set-ups which are run that way as well.

I’m thinking, in particular, of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now there are a couple of clubs who know a thing or two about maintaining their identity while winning trophies. If that’s the next level, count me in.

Brian Williams is the author of Nearly Reach The Sky – A Farewell to Upton Park. His brilliant new book, Home From Home, charts the move from the Boleyn Ground to Stratford.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.