Premier League focus

Failure to axe Grant may cost Hammers

January 27, 2011
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

The Olympic ideals have become a sporting shorthand for the nobility of competing, of striving for victory and pursuing it with dignity and integrity. The Olympic Stadium, on the other hand, has become an increasingly bitter battleground for West Ham. They may have right on their side in the quest to take possession of East London's white elephant, but it is questionable if, even among football's dubious approach to morality, any club is further away from epitomising the ideals of the games.

West Ham Avram Grant
GettyImagesAvram Grant: Received an unconvincing vote of confidence from West Ham's owners

An oft-heard comment in the past fortnight is that West Ham deserve to be relegated now. Not for footballing reasons, either, although there are on-field reasons demotion may beckon. The events of January 15 explain the animosity and account for the alienation of neutrals. The anaemic display in defeat to Arsenal was overshadowed by the botched plan to replace Avram Grant with Martin O'Neill. It left the Israeli resembling a lame duck and annoyed the Ulsterman, who swiftly ended his interest in managing West Ham.

One factor appeared to be the Hammers' inability to do anything quietly. In co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan and vice-chairman Karren Brady, they have three powerbrokers who pursue publicity with the shameless eagerness of a candidate on a reality television show. Upton Park has more leaks than the Titanic which, as West Ham may do, went down.

The failed decapitation of Grant places the club in a bizarre position. In a belated show of faith, it was confirmed he would remain manager for the remainder of the season. Yet by undermining Grant, the board made relegation more probable unless the players rally around the beleaguered manager and generate a siege mentality whereby, in the "us against the world" equation, the latter category includes various factions at the club. An encouraging performance in the 2-2 draw at Everton suggested it is possible; that said, Scott Parker contrives to maintain his high standards regardless of the context.

A likelier scenario is that the players sense a weakness in Grant's make-up. Footballers are not known for their generosity in such circumstances and West Ham's dressing room already contains too many underachievers; with the obvious exception of Parker, and arguably a handful of others, such as Mark Noble, James Tomkins and Frederic Piquionne, there is scant evidence the players were performing for Grant, even when he did have a remit and a powerbase. Why, then, would they step up their efforts when he appears a dead man walking?

Assume that West Ham beat the drop, however, and does that mean a reprieve for Grant? If not, there would be a cruelty: he would almost certainly have achieved superior results in the second half of the season after it became apparent he was unwanted. Moreover, should Grant go, other potential appointments would face the question O'Neill answered in the negative: would you want to work for owners like that?

There is also the question of the current manager's motivations. Grant is clinging on, either for the pay-off or in the belief he can turn it around. Yet a man who has already exhibited signs of a persecution complex - look at many of his comments about officials and injuries this season - now has a reason to be suspicious. Just because he's paranoid doesn't mean some people aren't out to get him. And while his predicament has generated sympathy, it can prove counter-productive. The most admired managers don't tend to be the most pitied. Should Grant be resuming his search for a job in the summer, he risks being seen as a man who was too weak to walk out.

West Ham player misery
GettyImagesWest Ham no longer have the Carling Cup to distract them from their relegation battle

Meanwhile, as West Ham are predictably busy in the transfer window, it prompts the question of who is signing the players (one answer that has been proffered is agent Barry Silkman). Wayne Bridge was parachuted in for a debut against Arsenal, a decision that backfired when he was culpable for all three goals; whether it was Grant's choice is a moot point. The signing of a £90,000-a-week full-back also intrigues - left-backs are not renowned for saving sides from relegation. West Ham's squad still has the sizeable burden that is Benni McCarthy, signed, seemingly not by then manager Gianfranco Zola, last January on extortionate wages.

Indeed, as recruitment over the last 13 months has proved little short of disastrous, it does suggest it is best left to the manager. With the money spent on both transfers and wages, West Ham have neither one of the three lowest budgets in the division or one of the three worst squads, despite a surfeit of deadwood. That indicates they were correct in their original intention to dismiss Grant, despite their impressive Carling Cup run. But by proving too incompetent to wield the axe, West Ham have found a novel way of adding to their problems.