With a stadium bearing the near-requisite doughnut shape for top-level continental football and boasting a pre-packaged history from Great Britain’s medal haul at the 2012 Summer Olympics, West Ham United have the facade locked down.
David Sullivan described the now-named London Stadium as the “natural home” for the Irons when he, David Gold, and Karren Brady took over the club’s running in January 2010, and revealed a seven-year plan for Champions League football during a period that would see them “spend a lot of money.”
A few months short of the ninth anniversary of Sullivan’s forecast, West Ham have nothing to show from their first four matches of the 2018-19 Premier League campaign. Their next six league fixtures are trips to Everton, Brighton & Hove Albion, and Leicester City and visits from Chelsea, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur. Beneath the London Stadium’s sickly glaze and brazen comments from the brass, there are chewed wires that look beyond repair even for an Engineer. Manuel Pellegrini, whose degree in civil engineering led to that nickname in his native Chile, is the latest manager to try to affix joists to a club that has been flirting with implosion for over a decade.
Sullivan coarsely branded West Ham a bigger club than Birmingham City – the outfit he had overseen previously with Gold and Brady – when the trio’s purchase was completed, apparently beating fan and future Queens Park Rangers owner Tony Fernandes. Even without all the bravado, the arrival of the two Davids – profiteers in the late-1970s soft porn industry – and Brady should have been cause for celebration. They hauled Birmingham from financial instability to supply fans with a stadium that was no longer crumbling. Even reasonable success and nationwide appeal were drawn from hiring noteworthy managers. Things were done frugally, but Sullivan vowed that wouldn’t be the case at West Ham.
Their arrival also toppled the peculiar regime of the egg-headed Eggert Magnusson. The Icelandic businessman’s consortium was lucky to not be charged with a relegation during his first season in the boardroom when a goal from Carlos Tevez, who had been acquired illegally three months before its accepted takeover bid, saved the Irons on the final day of the season. Instead, Sheffield United went down in 2007, with West Ham’s resulting £5.5-million fine for transfer malpractice proving scant consolation for a club that hasn’t been in the top flight since.
Two mid-table finishes followed for West Ham, but purchases of players like Craig Bellamy, Scott Parker, Freddie Ljungberg, and, less successfully, Kieron Dyer, Savio Nsereko, and David Di Michele came at a cost: the chairman’s wallet. In August 2009, it became apparent there were no funds left for players, although shirt sponsor SBOBET kindly helped sign attacker Alessandro Diamanti, who sauntered back to Italy after he scored only three goals from open play but still finished runner-up for the club’s player of the season award.
West Ham had finished 17th in 2009-10, but halfway through that term the era of the two Davids and Brady had begun. They arrived as if they were saviors.
It has been an age blighted by broken promises, arrogance, and a gross disregard for West Ham’s heritage. Brady’s sheer ignorance of the club’s values was evident in October 2016, when she said a “rebranding” of West Ham was necessary when they had “no culture” at the Boleyn Ground. Upton Park was the backyard of many supporters: a neighborhood steeped in history and celebrated in modern popular culture; a jellied-eel slurping area that was a case study in traditional Cockney living. For opposing fans, the close alignment between the club and community was reason for envy and greatly contributed to the ground’s reputation as a must-visit venue.
The bosses adding the word “London” to the crest while flattening the old digs and moving to the London Stadium hasn’t boosted West Ham’s saleability – the club’s charm was left behind in Upton Park.
Eventually, supporters will find new drinking holes and the stadium will wear adornments, blemishes, and memories that truly represent their beloved club. It will become a home. However, the London Stadium currently serves as a reminder of the boardrooms’ missteps and miserliness.
Money has been spent, but not at the rate of other teams attempting to gatecrash England’s elite, like Everton and Leicester. West Ham were outmuscled in the transfer market by Premier League newcomers Fulham over the summer. The Irons’ policy often appears to be quantity rather than quality: bringing in a raft of names that stopped evoking excitement years earlier yet still demand huge wages. And the number of players coming through the door means West Ham have to deal with more agents. They were found to have spent a huge £9.5 million on agent fees through deals during the two transfer windows of the 2016-17 season – the sixth-most in the Premier League and more than Tottenham, who finished second that term – and only had names like Simone Zaza, Jose Fonte, Andre Ayew, Sofiane Feghouli, Gokhan Tore, Jonathan Calleri, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Havard Nordtveit to show for it. Fonte was the last of those players to leave in February 2018.
Sullivan, certainly the most consenting mouthpiece of this era of identity bashing and gutting short-termism, won’t be able to resist volunteering Pellegrini as a scapegoat for what has been a calamitous 2018-19 campaign so far. He willingly told the press about midfield targets the overthrown Slaven Bilic turned down while that department underwhelmed at the beginning of last season, and now has even more in his arsenal should no on-pitch improvements be forthcoming.
“When I spoke with him he told me he wants to build a new club,” Pellegrini said of Sullivan in July, according to the Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg. “He wants to give all the responsibility to me. He asked me also to bring a sporting director to the club, said that he will support all that I asked and that’s the way we are working now.”
Mario Husillos, who was sporting director at Malaga when Pellegrini was at the senior side’s helm, was appointed as director of football, and the subsequent summer splurge was headlined by Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Lukasz Fabianski. The latter, a 33-year-old goalkeeper, has been West Ham’s best player over the opening four Premier League outings despite the team leaking 10 goals – a league-worst amount shared with Huddersfield Town before the latest round of fixtures.
If promises were fulfilled – not a guarantee given the past form of the West Ham hierarchy – Pellegrini was given what he wanted in an attempt to assemble “a new club,” and it’s now up to him to meld his recruits. With a glaring lack of intensity and persisting issues with trying to replace or partner Mark Noble in midfield, the early signs aren’t good. Given the upcoming run of daunting fixtures, the Irons may still be propping up the table to begin November.
Pellegrini would get the blame and likely the ax if that is West Ham’s predicament after over a quarter of the season has elapsed, but it would be supplemented with a strong hint of who is really at fault. The board members at this once-proud club failed to include a termination clause in Pellegrini’s paperwork, according to The Times’ Matt Hughes, meaning that the rest of his contract would have to be paid in full. That bill would hit West Ham for just under £15 million.
Par for the course.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)