Curbishley and Keegan must shoulder some blame
It is the board's fault. It is the director of football's fault. It is the players' fault. Now, it appears, when a manager departs, everyone is to blame bar the exiting boss himself. It is enough to induce feelings of nostalgia for the more innocent times when one man could be the scapegoat. In the cases of Alan Curbishley and Kevin Keegan, the unholy trinity of overpaid footballers, meddling directors and interfering executives with newly-created positions have played their part. But so have Keegan and Curbishley themselves.
It is both easy and right to feel sympathy for them. Both had deep emotional attachments to their respective clubs; leaving them cannot have been easy. Both oversaw decent starts to the season, with West Ham standing fifth and Newcastle, despite meeting Manchester United and Arsenal in their opening three games, a respectable 11th. Both, too, fell victim to a peculiarly modern phenomenon where football clubs' once simple structure have been complicated by faceless and often unaccountable advisors, none of whom ever accept responsibility for a defeat or a plummet down the table. Both, moreover, had the decency to resign, something far more culpable managers rarely do as they hang on for an undeserved pay-off.
Yet neither departed because of on-field results. Rather, the murky world of transfer dealings brought their farewells. The similarities between Keegan and Curbishley continue; both can be portrayed as defiantly old-school in their preference for proven Premier League players. In each case, alternative factions at the club favoured a foreign policy, thinking inflated prices are rarer abroad and value for money more commonplace. Perhaps, too, there is an element of ignorance; after his three-year exile from management, Keegan certainly knew little of the Spanish market and Curbishley rarely professed an in-depth knowledge of Serie A. Yet given a manager's many duties, it can make sense to employ someone - though definitely not Dennis Wise - who is an expert in those fields.
But both Curbishley and Keegan were undermined by their attitudes to domestic dealings. The former West Ham manager bears more responsibility in that respect. He committed more than £40 million for Freddie Ljungberg, Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy, Luis Boa Morte, Scott Parker, Matthew Upson, Calum Davenport, Lucas Neill and Nigel Quashie. Upson probably ranks as the best of the buys from Britain, but there is insufficient competition and several are rank bad signings; unfortunate as West Ham were with injuries - and frequently as their former manager mentioned them - was it really any shock when Dyer, Bellamy and Ljungberg were sidelined?
Most of the arrivals came for excessive fees and the majority are remunerated rather too generously; indeed, West Ham's annual wage bill is thought to be £25 million more than it was when Curbishley arrived. The Icelandic owners may have authorised the contracts, and Curbishley probably did not negotiate them, but he is still implicated. Moreover when, mirroring the global economy, West Ham entered their own depression, the consequences of those signings became apparent; the majority, especially the ageing and injury-prone players, had little resale value. Exorbitant salaries acted as a deterrent to would-be buyers and West Ham resorted to paying Ljungberg off, a decision that cost £6 million.
And so, when funds needed to be raised, they had to accept offers for Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney, two players Curbishley did not wish to sell. It is to be presumed that the West Ham board preferred not to dispense with the two defenders either but given Sunderland's largesse and a distinct shortage of offers for Boa Morte, Dyer and co, did they have a choice?
Keegan, probably only responsible for one signing, cannot be condemned to the same extent. Nevertheless, given Newcastle's civil war, it was notable that he spent the post-match interviews at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season telling anyone who would listen that Danny Guthrie was the man of the match. The majority present were more impressed with the other debutants, Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez but neither, it is thought, was recruited by Keegan himself.
More significant, however, are the cases of the players Mike Ashley and his cabal of advisors were anxious to sell. Admittedly, that might have been everyone, but some names stand out. Between them, Michael Owen, Alan Smith and Joey Barton earn around a quarter of a million pounds a week. Keegan has pushed for a new contract for the striker, whose goals-per-game record is excellent, but whose matches-per year statistics are rather less impressive. For an annual salary of £6 million, Owen averages around 14 starts a season. That is neither his fault nor a good investment.
Barton and Smith, however, have been unmitigated disasters. The former has veered between prison and suspension, embarrassing Newcastle and rarely finding his Manchester City form. The latter has been a striker who could not score, a midfielder who did not merit a place in the team and a captain whose major contribution was to incur a needless red card. Yet Keegan resisted attempts to sack Barton and sell Smith. Defending players may generate team spirit and boost a manager's popularity in the dressing room, but protecting miscreants and underachievers on vast salaries does not just antagonise the bean-counters. James Milner left - against Keegan's wishes - but one of his grievances was that less reliable players were paid more. Two names spring to mind.
None of this is to suggest Wise merits his current position or Ashley is an ideal owner, but managers cannot divorce themselves from the economic reality. While it is understandable that they object to outside influences in transfers, it is nevertheless true that they cannot ignore the bottom line. Apart from Arsene Wenger, all are happy to spend in boom times. Yet there are spells when football needs to tighten its belts; even Ashley's waistline cannot expand forever. Surreal as the Premier League can appear, there are occasions when the basics of incomings matching outgoings apply.
West Ham's sales are the result of Curbishley's spending; Keegan's call for players could have been financed by disposing of Smith and Barton. But with the power to spend should come the responsibility to keep the club within budget. Sometimes even football's well runs dry.