Two years on from the hotly disputed and highly controversial move away from Upton Park, West Ham co-owner David Gold insists leaving the club’s historic home to relocate to the London Stadium was the right thing to do.
He claims that for all the problems and dissatisfactions that have occurred so far, it will prove to be the correct decision for the club’s long-term future.
The 81-year-old, who grew up at 442 Green Street and lived across the road from the ground for his formative years before going on to buy it, admitted there had been mistakes and also that he had set excessively ambitious targets around the move, but defended the decision, saying that he “couldn’t make the case for staying” once it became clear that the move was doable.
‘My earliest memories are of growing up in abject poverty [on Green Street], so West Ham was the only thing in my life,’ he said.
‘I wasn’t always pro the move, because Upton Park was so important for me in my young life. When it was mooted that there was a prospect of us moving, I thought “I really don’t want to, this place is my life,” but then I started to realise that, as Einstein said, if you continue doing the same thing over and again and expect a different result, you’re mad.
‘For 100 years, certainly in my life, West Ham have never really challenged at the top. We’ve been the fourth biggest club in London forever, and if we want that to change, then we have to change. I can’t bear being fourth, it’s not what I want and I don’t think we [fans] do.
‘We’ve made mistakes, but going to the new stadium wasn’t one of them. If you’re going to build a new stadium, you can take your time, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so we had to grasp the nettle.’
Selling Upton Park to move into a rented property – and one that is felt to be such an uncomfortable fit – is something that still rankles with many fans.
But Gold insists much as he would have loved to stay at the Boleyn Ground, its physical limitations meant the club would be forever hamstrung, with no chance of closing the gap on Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham.
‘We always knew the London Stadium wasn’t perfect,’ he explained. ‘But if you want to buy perfection, you have to spend about £1bn, then you have to carry that burden of debt for years to come, and if you make a mistake with a £1bn debt, there’s a danger you could go into administration.
‘You couldn’t spend £1bn on Upton Park. The best you could have done was increase capacity to around 42,000. I think that was the proposal Terry Brown looked at and rejected, and the Icelanders too – it wasn’t financially viable. I wish we could have stayed there, but it wasn’t feasible, so when this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came along, we grasped it.’
Gold admitted that this season’s budgeting had been based on the team finishing eighth or ninth in the Premier League, something that is now very obviously way out of reach.
Gold and co-owner David Sullivan have received a lot of abuse from fans over their handling of the club’s finances, but on the subject of money, he defended their record, and how they had used their own cash to keep things going.
‘When we came into the club [the pair bought the club in January 2010, with Sullivan saying ‘as a business venture, buying West Ham made no sense], it owed millions to banks and institutions, paying on average 10% interest,’ said Gold.
‘Those were caustic loans, ones the bank could foreclose on if you fell behind. We saw this and changed those into safe loans, so we put our own money in – so the rate is now under 4 per cent, meaning the club is paying less interest.
‘I took money from my own investments, where it was making me 10.25 per cent, and I’ve given that money to West Ham, so I’m losing the difference between the two figures. I’m worse off, and the club is better off – that sounds like a better deal for West Ham, doesn’t it?
‘I don’t have 140 oil wells, I don’t own a country – our assets are our businesses and our people. David and I are worse off for investing in West Ham – but it’s not really an investment, it’s protecting the club from the banks. We had to put our money in to replace the bank loans.’
For many fans, the end of the current season cannot come soon enough. A poor start to the campaign saw the firing of popular former player Slaven Bilic as manager in November, replaced by David Moyes, whose future beyond the end of the current campaign is far from clear.
Gold admitted to being saddened by the nature of Bilic’s departure, but defended the appointment of former Everton and Manchester United manager Moyes, who oversaw Sunderland’s relegation from the Premier League this time last year.
‘It was sad to lose Slav – he’s a nice man and passionate about his football, but with hindsight, we were always thinking “well if he wins the next match, that’s a bit of breathing space” – we should have done it earlier,’ Gold explained.
‘We always hoped desperately that results would improve so that we didn’t have to part company with him.
‘I know the fans loved him and I did too, it’s always a sad day when you lose a good man who’s done a good job and you feel that maybe he’s run out of steam.
‘One big thing that’s different about now is that I can tell you the names of all David Moyes’s backroom staff. With Slav, I couldn’t, and these were people who had been here more than two years. Maybe he was too loyal.’
To many fans, Moyes’ greatest attraction as an appointee was that he was available, but Gold insists there was more to the decision than just that.
‘What you don’t want to do in that situation is go out to take an existing manager from a club, but David was a round peg in a round hole – when I met him, within 15 minutes, I felt he was the right man for us,’ he said.
‘He explained what happened at United and Sunderland – remember, he was a great manager at Preston and Everton – Karren [Brady] and I made the decision, and I think David [Sullivan] was happy to support our judgement.’
In the course of the two-hour interview for Blowing Bubbles, Gold also spoke in detail about the architectural and practical challenges posed by the design of the London Stadium, and the fan dissatisfaction this had caused, as well as defending the club’s transfer dealings and explaining the decision making process on new signings.
Whilst making no attempt to hide his disappointment at how the season had panned out – ‘there will be a review in the summer, regardless of the finish, then we take things from there’ – Gold said that, for all the turbulence and upset of the first two seasons at the London Stadium, and all the abuse he had taken personally over what has gone on, the club is heading in the right direction, and is in a healthier state than it was in years gone by.
‘Yes we aware of the negativity around the club. Our complete focus is around avoiding relegation, that is where our energy is going and in every way we’re addressing those negatives,’ he said.
‘Most of the negativity comes from the matchday experience. We want to improve that experience, and for fans to be proud of their – our – club. Maybe people can’t see it, but things are improving.
‘We all know if would make it a lot easier if we were winning more games, there’s no way fans would be tweeting these negative things if we were winning games, saying it’s our fault. I know how it works, it goes with the territory.’
Not many people would be willing to put themselves in the firing line at the age Gold has, but he is willing to take fair criticism on the chin – whilst also being proud of his reputation.
‘I’m a decision maker and decision makers make mistakes. I don’t mind you questioning my judgement but I’m fiercely defensive of people questioning my integrity. I make mistakes, I raise failed ambitions, but I don’t lie.’
And for all the flak that has come his way, for so many reasons, underneath it all he still retains the genuine enthusiasm of the boy who used to be small enough to squeeze through the gates of Upton Park to watch his team, the one he grew up to take to a new home.
‘The future is the most exciting adventure,’ he said. ‘There are going to be some ups and down on that journey but I think it will take us forward and the result will be very exciting.
‘I’d like to think this is going to happen in the very near future – we’ve got the nucleus, we’ve got the stadium, we’ve got the capacity, I just believe in it passionately, that we will sit aside the three big London clubs.
‘They’re in our face every day, every weekend so we’ve got to compete with them – the set-up is ready for us to achieve great things.”