In every Premier League season, without fail, ownership crises curtail and maim the competitive opportunities of at least one respectable, and often historic, outfit. Rarely, however, does the same error occur twice.
Mike Ashley, we are led to believe, is on the perpetual verge of floating the long-strangulated Newcastle United. Ellis Short is discussing a proposal with former club chairman Niall Quinn to place a consortium in charge while he continues to cover the running costs of an ailing Sunderland. West Bromwich Albion, like Black Country neighbours Aston Villa before them, are witnessing the fruits of funds literally amassed from Chinese labour lay spoilt in putrefying sporting environments. Even Hull City, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Blackpool and Queens Park Rangers are yet to truly be freed from the shackles imposed on them by totalitarian investors who once stated their best intentions. West Ham United, however, are a complex and inimitable beast.
They rose again – albeit fortunately, in a victorious play-off campaign – after slipping to an eminently avoidable 2010-11 season relegation under Avram Grant. Thus, David Gold and David Sullivan – alongside Vice-chairperson and long-term business loyalist Karren Brady – were seen to have emerged relatively unscathed from a feat that was both mitigated in respect of their culpability by the severity of financial instability, picked up in January 2010, from the financial crash-impacted Icelander Björgólfur Guðmundsson, and unprecedented since a last-day defeat at the then-Gold & Sullivan-owned Birmingham City in May 2003; almost universally, they were to be offered patience in reconstructing an outfit that only five years earlier had finished agonisingly outside of the Champions League qualification places. As later emerged, this was direly misplaced optimism, and a strand of which the maniacal duo has subsisted on for season upon season.
Sam Allardyce – Allardici to friends – was not the most harmonious of appointments, even if it meant bringing onside the pragmatist ranks of Hammers support; those who felt dearly dishevelled by Icelandic ownership. A managerial philosophy, though often countered by the impartial as professing fitness regimes, statistical value and economical sensibility way before its time, which recruited Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll and James Collins as its key spinal protagonists was not one to drive fans to aesthetic clamour, certainly.
To retreat on almost of all of this stability with the appointment of rock-and-rolling Slaven Bilić, investment in global talent as diverse as Angelo Ogbonna, Manuel Lanzini and Dimitri Payet and the escalation of efforts to secure the Olympic Stadium as an unmissable relocating and rebranding prize just months after Allardyce achieved a third consecutive mid-table finish undermined the entire regionally-valuing rhetoric of Londoners Gold & Sullivan. Framing the realignment as one which would appease those calling for reform, their confidence was invested wholeheartedly in the club’s ever-increasing capacity for top-half competition, with the facilities, transfer policy and coaching repertoire intended to replicate that of their vastly gentrified London rivals.
For all of the events of what the ever-gregarious parody account @_CarltonCole9 brands the club’s ‘Banter Era’ (2006-), few compare to the ever-expanding formation of an overwhelming constitutional calamity of the past twelve months. It gives great credence to the producers of such aforementioned Twitter accounts that they appear the most valid form of media coverage of events from the Olympic Stadium and beyond, with the extremity of rational divulgence gaping vaster almost by the day. Witness the last week alone, in which David Sullivan was found guilty at a tribunal chamber of defrauding the state of £700,000 worth of tax from his £2 million transfer from family real estate business Conegate Limited to the club in 2010, in the context of the life bans reportedly sanctioned upon 20 supporters who were involved in the high-profile pitch invasions and coin-throwing exerts in the 3-0 defeat to Burnley on 10th March.
As aforementioned, integrity has long since abandoned the chambers of club administration – for traditionalists symbolically demolished with Upton Park, for others infected long before the move to the Olympic Stadium – and as such, identity, the fundamental claim of Gold and Sullivan’s stewardship, has been entirely eroded in as equal a process. Perhaps it comes with the territory, given the duo’s historical profit from industries that are, at the very least, seedy, bordering on amoral, but it is nonetheless inexcusable in the modern, whiter-than-white environment the Premier League, as the foremost of any regular global footballing product, demands, for chairmen – those with the greatest influence on each constituent club’s fortunes – to act, so recurrently also, with such scant regard for basic ethical principles.
Given Bilić’s sacking, the miscued recruitment processes that saw Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Hernández, Marko Arnautović and in a total capitulation of policy the disgraced elder statesman Patrice Evra and mere Championship marksman Jordan Hugill, desperately drafted in, and even after some promise greeted their arrival a totally misfiring coaching and continuity allowance that enabled evidently stagnating talents to further descend into despondence or exile, attempts to consolidate or advance a final season at Upton Park – or the Boleyn Ground, strictly speaking – encountered a further setback. Undermined, originally, by the very fact that a mere six of the 2016-17 season’s 13 senior or under-23 side signings remain under the employment of the club – not even the result, ostensibly, of a regime change as Moyes enacted little of a chartered transfer policy, albeit with naïve results also culpable of since-sacked ‘director of player recruitment’ Tony Henry’s apparent anti-‘mayhem’ revelation – the term did not exactly begin on the brightest of notes. William Carvalho, a potential marquee signing to rejuvenate an otherwise-ageing outfit, proved a deal that stalled in its later stages, and nor did Bilic tactically adapt to early-season trends towards a three/five-man defence; remaining steadfast in loyalty to his 4-2-3-1, which by admission had encountered issues of its own while stuttering towards safety the season prior, with Carroll’s persistent injury woes a particular hindrance. And these are just the fundamental footballing errors.
Nor, indeed, has adaptation become a forte of the Hammers’ board. Observe the latter half of this Premier League season, with at least eight sides under caution of the drop at any given stage. The manner in which Swansea City chanced their arm on the affable, if unproven Portuguese Carlos Carvahal has salvaged the incompetent partnership of majority shareholders Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan – New York and Los Angeles-based, respectively – for this season at least. In contrast, the appointment of David Moyes, as with a bedraggled Alan Pardew at West Brom and the exonerated Paul Lambert at the otherwise stably-managed but increasingly marginalised Stoke City, demonstrated a certain apathy to relegation; both clubs retreating to safety, in helmsmen professing many of the same ideals as Allardyce and Tony Pulis, both of largely unquestioned authority but equally the victims of similar hierarchical ideology shifts that seized on any glimmers of slight competitive misfortune.
Bearing greater resemblance to a boardroom of the 1970s or ‘80s, what currently resides in Stratford, three-and-a-half miles west of genuine occupation on Green Street, is an ingrown and severely isolated band of an expiring elite of British business. Neither in industry nor sport do they appear to realise their rapidly diminishing status and are instead in both restating their loyalty to a dogma that few others possess belief in, let alone dedication to.
They cannot, however, be rendered resonant to this self-evident eventuality – even if relegation beckons. Even if the fracturing of an entire London borough, in demographic, economic and social respects, was not yet enough for them to prove pliable, the employment of Mark Noble and the recently retired (and genuine) Carlton Cole as mouthpieces for the establishment will not refrain what they have allowed to amount to somewhat of a revolution. Relegation may place the displaced Hammers at a long-beckoning disparity – an eventuality only heightened if Gold & Sullivan, the comedy double act they come as, remain in the heated seats reminiscent in their all-observing standing of the latter’s admiration for late Soviet leaders.
Ownership, nonetheless, requires a complex balance that the duo may once have possessed. The apparent predisposition of nationality need not necessarily detach any figure of interest from the responsibility, yet there is equally the pivotal question of the ethics and stability of their finances; not to mention their level of competition in attempting to obtain regular continental football, something Gold & Sullivan would be churlish to argue they current provide the club. Power, some argue, may be so confidently consolidated within the hands of the present establishment, and increasingly Sullivan from the marginalised Gold, however, that this transfer may never occur; Jack Sullivan, the 21-year-old of Twitter transfer news-breaking and Women’s team managing director fame, seen as the inevitable inheritor of the reins by many cynics.
One only has to observe proceedings in the West Midlands, and the contrasting fortunes of West Brom and Birmingham City against bilaterally promotion-aspiring compatriots Wolverhampton Wanderers and Villa, to denounce the flouting of nationality as such a critical feature of chairmanship. Given each Chinese conglomerate that contributed to the repatriation of the region announced embellished desires to restore Premier League status, or in the Baggies’ case – purchased with the culmination of their far above-par 2016-17 season performance – to progress beyond prior consolidation, there are few valid excuses for the destabilisation of the former duo; even in spite of the St Andrews-based outfit’s history of commercial mistreatment by the Hong Kong entrepreneur Carson Yeung, from which they were now expected to flourish. As experienced with Villa’s relegation-flirting previous term and Wolves’ similarly sub-par 2016-17 finish, a bump in performances was not immediately felt, nor perhaps expected, as it may have been at the retrospectively-deemed naïve Hawthorns-based structure and altogether desperate Blues. From here, further administrative misjudgements – Pulis’ sacking just 12 matches into the league season after the likes of Chairman John Williams, his employer Lai Guochuan and Director of Football Administration Richard Garlick had secured four of the Welshman’s desired six signings only after the season had already began, sharing sentiment with Harry Redknapp’s disposition as Birmingham boss as targets Aden Flint and Alex Song were missed before an entire nine players, five of them loanees, arrived in the final ten days of the transfer window, etc. – consigned the sides to complete competitive fatality.
What these examples appear to encapsulate are the only viable, or at least visible, escape routes from distorted, constricting and outdated local ownership. In order to achieved the desired results of a Wolves or Villa, the reins must be handed over compliantly or glaring administrative errors be quickly addressed if to avoid further disgrace – not seized and manipulated unsympathetically as in Bromwich, nor thrown to the first buyer in the ilk of Birmingham’s second-oldest outfit.
Concerns about a buyer need not be rife, moreover. Fiscal appeal will always define the Premier League brand, and all those associated with it, while lest we forget, West Ham are, in no uncertain terms, ranked as the 17th most profitable footballing entity in the global span of the sport (Deloitte Football Money League, 2018) and have enjoyed a steady rise in such standings since their entry to the top 30 sides in 2012. There is bountiful opportunity in every competition they enter, and each nation they court through particular signatures, tours or sponsorship ties, for the Hammers to amass further fortune, and prove the Olympic Stadium an apt host to these prestigious stages. These are not merely the semantics of an optimist, but a studied pragmatist, providing harmony is fostered between the operation of sporting efforts and excellence in commercial allure. Anyone who recognises these as reciprocal aims, and sympathises with the continued plight of hardened supporters, would prove a valuable boardroom asset.
At the very least, relegation, managerial change and ownership transfer or not, order must be restored to a club that has bled great character over recent seasons. Granted, they must adapt to the ever-evolving demands of the modern age, yet first they must admire the past – not half-heartedly, either, nor cynically. This is a club, after all, that prior to Gold & Sullivan’s approach had only ever employed twelve permanent first-team managers in a semi-professional history that at the time amount to 109 years, and had a proud heritage of promoting from within; Chatham-born Syd King, right from 1901, transitioning from a position as a player-manager to a 31-year ‘stint’ as manager before physiotherapist (at the time ‘trainer’) Charlie Paynter took over for a further 18 years, and ex-players and London natives Ted Fenton, John Lyall, Billy Bonds, Harry Redknapp and Alan Curbishley (not to mention Ronnie Boyce, Kevin Keen and Trevor Brooking as caretakers) extending this lineage for a further half century in mostly iconic tenures. Their commendation for the production of generation-defining English players – most famously the spine of the Three Lions’ 1966 World Cup-winning exploits, before providing the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard Jr. and Senrab graduates Jermaine Defoe, Bobby Zamora, John Terry and Paul Konchesky when emerging at the turn of the millennium – forms an integral feature of their very establishment ethos, also. To bely these values appears ignorant at best, and far more than discourteous at worst.
Attempts to cultivate an ethos that returned to these values after Allardyce’s sacking may indeed be the factor that ensured the ownership monopoly remains to today. Bilić, for them, acted as a stooge from which to bolster fan rapport. Certainly, he was a highly valid candidate, and passed on achievements of experience, title-winning exploits and media handling, but the pivotal attribute in his selection was his time, albeit brief, spent at Upton Park in the late 1990s, and the immediate adaptation that would appear when stepping into the Hammers’ hot seat. Where the apparent best intentions of the move to the Olympic Stadium were placed, murals of Moore, Hurst, Peters, Brooking, Bonds et al. were designed, yet the medium was consistently artificial. Little has been done to appease or even reach out to fans of the own goodwill of those in positions of influence, and ever since deep-rooted suspicion and dissatisfaction has revelled in its freedom. Poetically, Sullivan could scarcely share more parallels with the Soviet leaders he emulates in style alone – even this statement, from January 2015 to reveal his aspirations for a first ever top-division title within five years, encapsulates the worst of his blind ambition:
"I'd like to see us win the Premier League and then the Champions League.
"Yes, I know it's unlikely but again, not impossible - look at Atletico Madrid. We can all dream.
"We are West Ham United, we're a big club, one of four big clubs in London. We have some catching up to do but we've closed the gap.
"I'm optimistic and if things go our way we could beat Real Madrid tomorrow. It's unlikely but not impossible."
Many would, however, argue that the time and opportunity for such errors is too far gone. The offer to kiss and make up, so to speak, cannot now be made without great cynicism, and is far from in Gold & Sullivan’s style, seemingly. Along with Brady, they are brazen, bullish businesspeople with negligible regard for genuine affection; their callous actions to condemn mass fan demonstrations and misconstrue their intentions as an apparent rearing of a hooligan-influenced past at the Olympic Stadium three weeks ago render this totally evident. Nobody would ever be given the impression that they court the loyalty of right-wing media institutions through personal service and past financial contributions, nor further extend this to the satirically inept labelling ‘Brexit FC’, I’m certain.
Sentiment is rarely rewarded in recent competition; exorbitant fees powering the ilk of Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris St. Germain, most pointedly, to mass gilding. Arsène Wenger draws sympathy, granted, but little grand achievement at Arsenal, and the sole such accomplishments of community-focused cohesion are found in Burnley, Huddersfield and Brighton & Hove at present; geographically isolated and inherently hardy outfits indeed. Those who live by the river incite few such blessings. They reside in an ever-remodelling conurbation that, while highly dependent on its heritage, can prove extremely ruthless when it so desires. The Hammers brand – or lack thereof – is to no short extent its present victim; nothing remains sacred, even if these blessed environs.
Fans had been neglected and lied to. Their community has lost its historic and all-encompassing centrepiece. Players inevitably become embroiled, given their position as those closest, of all within the confines of the club, to the same supporting demographics, in this discord and lose perspective. Management is under constant pressure to deliver or prove the collective victims of an institution that rather than observe its own internal frailties pins blame on those who are already positioned as the most vulnerable in the sport. In each respect, West Ham United, rather than an instrumental community haven, has become a toxic establishment in which to both work and support. Temporary stability may be instilled, and fortune graced – as in the defeat of a similarly afflicted Southampton side – if indeed they do remain in the Premier League for next season, but that cannot alter the fundamentals of this malfunctioning and arrogant association. Criminals, in both the eyes of the law and citizen decree, Gold, Sullivan, Brady and each of their many pawns are. In order to salvage an ailing entity, justice must be served.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!