Premier league focus

A manifesto for change?

May 20, 2010
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

Ten-point pledges tend to be the stuff of politicians rather than football clubs. In this, as in much else, West Ham are the exceptions. An election was concluded in the United Kingdom not long before the launch of the Hammers' manifesto in which, like umpteen representatives of the voters, owners David Sullivan and David Gold pledged to listen to the people.

David Gold and David Sullivan
GettyImagesDavid Gold and David Sullivan will have to plough more cash into the club.

It represents a new development. The forthright views that tend to come from the directors' box at Upton Park had rarely appeared the results of opinion polls or attempts to find consensus among differing factions of fans. Building the image of the club was another eye-catching promise. Some would argue that Sullivan damages their standing most times he opens his mouth; his seeming belief that all publicity is good publicity, despite the evidence to the contrary, at least renders the club newsworthy.

But West Ham, like certain political parties, have something of an identity crisis. Aspirational without always proving realistic, their quest for power is as yet unrealised. As a colleague once noted, West Ham are almost a big club. The caveat has a tendency to be ignored, as their recent search for a manager (pledge No. 1: "appoint the right manager") illustrates. After firing Gianfranco Zola, who probably had a case for constructive dismissal even before he was removed, given Sullivan's comments, they appeared to form an A-List and a B-List of contenders to succeed the Italian. The former category appeared to include Mark Hughes, Steve McClaren, Slaven Bilic and Gregorio Manzano, each bringing either stardust or silverware to his candidacy. Except, it seemed, none were interested; almost was not quite big enough for them.

Reality was more demoralising. The B-List consisted of deserving overachievers: Avram Grant, Sam Allardyce, Dave Jones and Ian Holloway. Grant, the likely appointment, has prospered personally at Portsmouth. But Allardyce's experience of managing a genuinely big club was unhappy; both his style of football and his personality were disliked at Newcastle. Holloway, meanwhile, has fared best as an underdog and failed when granted the resources Leicester possessed. Jones' first season in top-flight management was a remarkable success but the other two-and-a-half, initially with Southampton and then Wolves, suggested his level may lie in the Championship.

As the more distinguished names on the initial shortlist may recognise, West Ham is an awkward job. Besides the difficulties of working for Sullivan and Gold - Steve Bruce must merit some form of award for endurance after surviving more than six years at Birmingham - and potential delusions of grandeur, there is the financial mess bequeathed by their former owners Eggert Magnusson and Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson.

Debts in excess of £100 million mean West Ham are both aiming higher and cutting costs. Depleted though the squad was, 17th place represented underachievement. There is potential for improvement, but there is also a limited room for manoeuvre.

While the board put every player bar the outstanding Scott Parker up for sale, the likelihood is that the men they most want rid of will remain. Kieron Dyer and Luis Boa Morte, who started five league games between them and account for at least £6 million on the annual wage bill, are unsellable. Though it is the fault of neither the new manager nor the new board, it is harder to force others to accept a policy of prudence when bit-part players are rewarded so handsomely for negligible contributions.

As Zola pointed out, more committed performers such as Valon Behrami and Mark Noble had a right to be aggrieved that they were bracketed with the excessively expensive and the unseen in being deemed dispensable. Replacing either would provide a test for the next manager.

As it is, there are several: the twin objectives of making the attack more prolific and the defence less porous are shared with plenty of other clubs but show the reasons why West Ham were embroiled in a relegation battle.

Will Mark Noble join Scott Parker in staying at West Ham?
GettyImagesWill Mark Noble join Scott Parker in staying at West Ham?

Then there is the question of how. It is one that goes beyond resources. The seventh pledge - "make it enjoyable to come and watch" - may be bad news for the Hammerettes. More seriously, it hints at the expectations from the stands as well as the directors' box: West Ham may not be the force they would like, but they are synonymous with good football. It is a reason why it was a surprise to see Allardyce's name in contention.

It will be instructive to see if tactics are exclusively the manager's domain. The suspicion is that Benni McCarthy, in particular, was bought by the board, rather than Zola, in February. The Italian, who had generally favoured fielding a solitary striker, played a two-man attack for much of the subsequent three months.

The second pledge - "sign new players" - does not say precisely who will be responsible for their recruitment. It is to be hoped it is the manager. But, after a tumultuous few years, there was no mention of bringing stability, which should be another objective.

Rather, the impression is that further changes are planned. Going for the Olympic Stadium, the ninth of the stated intentions, may require some political manoeuvring to relocate the club. Zola's successor may find that executing a turnaround in West Ham's fortunes to take the club where the owners believe they belong on a reduced budget could prove a similarly difficult move.