Why did West Ham really shuffle the pack in the directors’ box?

Two main reasons have been suggested but the simple solution is probably right

West Ham co-owners David Sullivan (top) and David Gold (face shield) at the EPL match West Ham United v Burnley, at the London Stadium, London, UK on 16th January, 2021. English Premier League matches are still being played behind closed doors because of the current COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and government social distancing/lockdown restrictions.

West Ham appointed four new directors at the beginning of January but no one really knows why.

With no announcement or explanation from the club, supporters clamoured for answers amid a myriad of theories – especially when the identities emerged of the newbies.

The new board members are: David Sullivan’s partner Emma Benton-Hughes, their son David Sullivan Jr, David Gold’s son-in-law Daniel Cunningham – who is married to Gold’s daughter Jacqueline – and finally Gold’s childhood friend Charlie Cross.

The appointments were published on Companies House on Monday January 11 – taking the total number of club directors from seven to 11. But again, nobody knows why.

Two theories gained the most traction.

Theory A: On January 13, the Times ran a story suggesting the four were appointed to enable them to attend games during the Covid-19 fan blackout.

Current Premier League protocols allow up to 10 directors to attend matches which would allow all but one of our newly inflated board to enter stadiums on matchdays.

The newbies were London Stadium regulars before Covid saw games go behind closed doors so the suggestion is not too far-fetched.

Crass and classless to appoint close friends and family as directors just so they can go to games while tens of thousands of Hammers fans cannot? Yes. But far-fetched? No.

Theory B: Hundreds of hopeful fans online argued the appointments pointed to the imminent sale of the club.

Varied logic streams were mooted but the main one revolved around the four benefiting financially if Gold and Sullivan were to sell up.

The latter theory seemed a little unlikely from the off. But the former made me feel uncomfortable and incredulous which leads me to believe it’s probably the most accurate.

However, rather than work myself into a fury by speculating and joining the Twitter pile-on, I decided to invite an expert in such matters onto our We Are West Ham podcast.

Kieran Maguire hates being called a ‘football finance expert’ but that is certainly what he is.

He hosts the hugely respected Price of Football podcast and I asked for his initial thoughts on West Ham’s new appointments.

Maguire said: ‘It’s always good to have diversity in the boardroom – in what you normally call a critical friend. It’s a bit like the mate you trust to take you down the pub and say: “You know that person you’ve just started seeing… avoid”.

‘You want somebody who can stand up to the people in charge and say: “You’re making wrong decisions”. Therefore independent directors are really good especially if they can bring new skills. But what we have at West Ham is keeping it in the family.

‘As fans, do you think that somebody’s partner, mum, or son-in-law will automatically have the skills required to drive West Ham to be a more competitive Premier League club?

‘That’s the question I suspect West Ham fans are asking as keeping it in the family doesn’t always work. We’ve seen what happened at Fox with Rupert Murdoch. How do you get to be a director there? You need to have the surname Murdoch. How do you get to be in Donald Trump’s inner sanctum? You’ve got to be an in-law.

‘By restricting the gene pool of talent at board level you come under extra scrutiny and run the risk of being accused of nepotism and not appointing the best people for the job.

‘I don’t know the skills of these people and they may be perfectly well qualified to be a director of a football club. 

‘If being director of ‘Horny Housewives on the Job’ [as Benton-Hughes was] makes you the right person to be on the board of a football club in the opinion of the club owners then ultimately, it’s their decision to make.’

Maguire’s reply seemed to suggest there are directorial jobs that need doing at West Ham and that it in some way matters if the new gang are capable of doing them. 

But again, that seemed unlikely so I put theories A and B to Mr Maguire and asked outright: ‘Why have these people actually been appointed?’

Maguire replied: ‘In terms of financial benefits, if West Ham is sold the money will be received by the shareholders. Now those shareholders in the main are still Gold and Sullivan. 

‘You can be a director of a company without being a shareholder and therefore wouldn’t receive any financial benefit.

‘Many directors of football clubs are unpaid. So I’m not certain of the financial benefits for these people coming on board.’

And now for the news many #GSBOut fans do not want to hear.

Maguire continued: ‘It could be there’s an element of succession planning. Both Gold and Sullivan are senior guys age-wise so perhaps they are looking to pass on the club if something happens to them.

‘They may have spoken to their advisors who have said: “What happens if one of you catches Covid or gets hit by a bus? What’s going to happen in terms of succession?”

‘And they might want somebody to look after their interests while they are gone. Therefore having a family member on board allows those people to become familiar with how decisions are made at board level and is part of a longer term process.

‘It could be that Sullivan Jr is keen on the club and wants to learn the ropes of what is required to run it. From the next generation up.’

Now I wasn’t brave enough to tell the more hopeful and vociferous #GSBOut fans on Twitter that the board additions are unlikely to mean new owners.

So I sure as hell wasn’t going to mention anything when Maguire suggested it could actually mean Gold, Sullivan and Brady are bedding in long term.

Magure added: ‘If I was setting up a company to sell and I found a party who wants to take over, the last thing the new party would want is remnants of GSB on the board. They will want a brand new, fresh board. Clear out the old wood and bring in the new.

‘So under normal circumstances you wouldn’t appoint directors prior or close to a major transaction in terms of selling the club. It’s just creating a problem for the new owners and that’s the last thing you want if you’re 80 or 90 per cent through selling a club.

‘I wouldn’t want it if I was taking over West Ham and I can’t see any benefit to any new owners. So I can’t see any links in terms of a sale of the club.  Never say never in football. But to have a board of 11, I think it could be more linked to the tickets.’

So why are GSB letting David Moyes’ contract run down with just six months remaining if not to give new owners flexibility?

Maguire said: ‘Prospective new buyers would prefer to make a management decision themselves but that’s an inconsistency with what we’ve seen on the board. 

‘If I was a West Ham fan trying to pin my hopes on the sale of the club, the lack of progress with the manager’s contract would be positive but the boardroom additions would be a negative.’

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