After a decade of smashing my head fruitlessly against the wall of Sullivanism I have finally seen the light.
I have spent years battling against the way West Ham has been run. Why, I pondered, would a football club that has ambitions to break into the Champions League be managed this way? What logic was driving the baffling sequence of decisions that have been the hallmark of this decade of ownership?
What, assuming you weren’t a blackmail victim, would convince you that signing Carlos Sanchez was a good idea? My repeated conclusion has been fairly straightforward; the people in charge of West Ham don’t know what they are doing. And, in fairness, the results have tended to back that up.
But after a while, I began to slightly question my logic. People do not tend to make billions while being idiots. They are certainly capable of poor decisions, but they aren’t generally stupid. But here we are in 2020 with West Ham having lost more Premier Leagues matches this decade than anyone else, and the club is still run and operated in exactly the same way it has been since Gold and Sullivan arrived in January 2010.
And the club finished the decade exactly where they started it – 17th in the Premier League, facing relegation and with no discernible plan for the future. Following West Ham in the Olympic Stadium era has been an even more frustrating experience than any of us could have imagined.
Rather than catapulting the club on to greater heights, it has instead become a test of strength. How much do you really love West Ham? Enough to give up the vast majority of the things you used to enjoy about football to continue watching them? Do you want to watch the same poor football but just from further away? Well, unbuckle and despise the ride because that’s what you’re doing.
And so my analysis of the club’s owners still seemed pretty sound; they don’t know what they’re doing. I’m right, aren’t I? Consider the league finishes of the club under the ownership of Terry Brown and then under David Sullivan.
Five of the top six West Ham Premier League finishes happened under Terry Brown. So yeah, how good can you really be when you’re demonstrably worse than a caravan park owner who thought we once got relegated because it was our turn. I say again, they don’t know what they’re doing. Right?
But that just didn’t sit easily with me. Wealthy people aren’t always smart, and smart people aren’t always wealthy, but unless you inherit your money the truth is that billionaires are likely to be smarter than the average bear. So, what if my analysis was fine, but I was simply asking the wrong question?
‘Why do they keep failing?’ is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and ‘because they don’t know what they’re doing’ is a very reasonable answer. But then I was hit by a notion not unlike Morrissey’s double decker bus. What if they’re not failing? What if this is fine? What if the things that you want for West Ham are not the same as the owners?
And that, my friends, was when it all began to make a lot more sense. We had made the mistake of assuming that success for them was the same as success for us. And with every misplaced pass, every abysmal signing and every short term bodge job it came became ever more clear that this was simply not the case.
I recently read the story of how investment firm Silver Lake recently purchased a 10 per cent stake in Manchester City’s parent company for $500m. For those paying attention at the back, that values Manchester City at a cool $5bn. Now, this might seem as relevant to West Ham as the stock price of Waitrose to your local second hand car dealership, but sadly it’s not.
Booming valuations of sports franchises have a knock on effect, and an astronomical valuation like this has the consequence of helping to raise the price of teams like West Ham. It matters not that City are run by an oil rich state – we occupy broadly the same real estate and that is all that matters.
Call it trickle down economics, or call it a symbol of how the world is, but you can probably value West Ham somewhere around $500m nowadays assuming – and this is the kicker – that they remain a Premier League club. And thus I began to view West Ham a little differently.
Us fans may pore over u23 score lines, scout Belgian central midfielders on YouTube and look longingly to the Bundesliga for a sexy young saviour, but the sad truth is that none of that matters. West Ham is not a club with aspirations about floating – West Ham is a club determined not to drown.
Now let me be clear about what I mean by this because I think this could be easily construed as me suggesting that the owners are asset strippers or uninterested leeches, and I don’t think that’s really true. I believe that David Sullivan and David Gold would like West Ham to be successful, and I can even allow myself to be convinced that as supporters they feel the highs and lows just as we do.
But their primary driver is simple; in the not too distant future the club can be sold without any of the proceeds needing to be repaid to the public purse. Assuming that West Ham are still a Premier League club at that point and that $500m valuation holds, then Sullivan and Gold will be free to sell up and bank the kind of profit that one does not usually see when you flog an asset-based in a leased building, constructed to last a fortnight.
So while I accept there is a nice spot in the Venn diagram where the things we want overlap with the owners, we can stop kidding ourselves about the wider dream. We aren’t going to see £100m plans for training facilities or substantial investment in a new scouting and analytics set up, because these things just cost money and depress the amount of the money the owners will trouser in a sale.
You don’t stick long term expenditure projects on a balance sheet when you’re preparing to sell up. I don’t doubt for a moment that the owners would like West Ham to be successful but that is a secondary consideration to avoiding relegation.
Champions League football would be a wonderful boom to the valuation of the club, but it’s a very long shot. As such, you are seeing a football club run more to avoid finishing 18th rather than with the intention of finishing 6th. And I have found that once I started viewing things through that prism, it all made a lot more sense.
Sullivan has always been prepared to spend money – and let me be clear here when I say that this is primarily because it’s the club’s money and not his – but there has been a distinct lack of any kind of cohesive plan in any of it. Think of the endless words written crying out for strategy, forward-thinking purchases, better facilities, investment in the marginal things that might eke out the odd point here and there and then remember that the club is valued the same whether we finish 14th or 9th.
It’s not that they don’t care – they just don’t care about what we care about.